December 3, 2008

Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

boy-striped-pajamas-movie-1I am sure that all of you have seen a film about the Holocaust. It is one of the greatest tragedies to ever be committed by man on his fellow man. I know it happened, but it is so hard to comprehend how someone could perpetrate such cruelty and be so convincing in his beliefs to have so many follow him, perhaps to the point of denying the reality of what they are doing, simply follow the orders that have been ingrained in them. Films have been made that take us inside the camps and those who dared try to help, forcing us to witness the horror. From Schindler's List to The Pianist, from The Grey Zone to Judgment at Nuremberg, the big screen has regularly made attempts to deal with the horror. Now along comes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a film that takes a new look at the tragedy, personal, innocent, and tragic.

boy-striped-pajamas-movie-17Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight-year old boy living with his family in Berlin. He is happy, playing with his friends and admiring his father, Rudolf's (David Thewlis) powerful status as a Nazi officer, without knowing any of the specifics. Young Bruno arrives home one day to find his life about to be drastically changed. You see, his father has been promoted and the family will be leaving their lush home to move to the country. This is a great honor for the family and they are expected to be happy for the move; however, Bruno is none too pleased as he will miss the home he loves and his friends.

The move happens and Bruno finds himself in a large, foreboding home that does not look much like the expected farmhouse. Soldiers come and go and Rudolf can be seen taking meetings behind partially closed doors. Despite not being happy about the move and not completely understanding what his father does, beside its apparent importance, Bruno takes the opportunity to explore the grounds around the home. He is most curious about the farm he sees from his bedroom window, the one with the people wearing striped pajamas to work. Unfortunately, the possibility of getting a closer look is forbidden as his mother (Vera Farmiga) does not allow the young boy in the closed off back garden.

Bruno's curiosity is piqued and when the door is left ajar he goes through and heads off into the woods. His exploring leads him to a the back edge of the farm, rather what he thinks is a farm. The land is encircled by electrified barb wire and on the other side sits a young boy, Schmuel (Jack Scanlon). The two become fast friends, with Bruno visiting as often as he can.

boy-striped-pajamas-movie-11That is the main thrust of the story, what makes the film so fascinating is how their friendship develops and what the two do for each other. The story is very much one of lost innocence as Bruno begins to have the scales peeled from his eyes. He sees his mother and father argue, with her obvious disapproval for what her husband is doing and her desire to protect Bruno and his sister, Gretel, from witnessing. There is also the disapproval that Rudolf gets from his mother, the grandmother Bruno loves.

More pieces of the big picture are laid out during Bruno and Gretel's home school lessons, teaching the destiny of the fatherland and the evils of the Jew. Bruno does not understand what it all means, but it is definitely having an impact on his innocent view of the world. His journey is counterpointed by that of Gretel, who seems to by into it hook, line, and sinker.

I dare not say how the story turns out, but it hit me like a punch to the gut. I can honestly say that I did not see this coming. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a wonderfully executed film, telling a familiar WWII story from a new perspective. We are taken inside the German nation and forced to experience this through innocent eyes, helping the viewer sympathize with the other side and showing the learned behavior that was drilled into them from an early age. Bruno is a good child, he may not understand all that is going on, but he shows that people are inherently good, he does not swallow the propaganda being fed to him.

boy-striped-pajamas-movie-24This is not a perfect movie, despite how good I think it is I did feel some disappointment pangs. The movie is definitely told from the perspective of a child, thus we do not get the entire picture. There are characters and events I would have liked to know more about. I suspect that another 15-20 minutes of character development would have pushed this towards classic, or at least near-classic, status. There is so much more that I would have liked to learn about, the father's work, more time with the grandmother, more background of the young lieutenant, among other things. However, I suspect this lack of background is intentional since it would rob the film of its perspective through the eyes of a child.

Mark Herman adapted John Boyne's novel and directed the film. In the process he crafted a film that packs an emotional wallop while giving us that welcome new perspective. He shows a sure hand in getting the story right without dumbing it down, or letting it fall into any sort of Hollywood cliches. He is supported by a number of fine performances from Vera Farmiga's protective mother, to David Thewlis' determined military man, to Asa Butterfield as the boy whose innocence is threatened.

Bottomline. This is not a movie to be missed. It is not perfect and does not quite exist in the real world, but it succeeds at creating a believable tone and that is what matters with a story such as this. Do yourself a favor, see this.

Highly Recommended.


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