The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Richard Johnson, Rupert Friend and David Hayman
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
This movie should not work. By rights, it should be an utterly unpalatable and, even offensive, overtly manipulative and exploitative drama that renders the tragedy of genocide to something resembling fairytale Holocaust porn, especially since the story is told with three extremely huge hurdles for an audience to overcome. The first hurdle is the entire cast of British actors playing the roles of Germans and a variety of Eastern European Jews replete with full-on natural British accents. The second hurdle is the almost-hard-to-swallow notion that two boys could continue to sit on opposite sides of an electrified barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz and not be noticed – by ANYONE. These are two formidable adversaries to making this picture work. Then there is the third hurdle – the ending. It’s powerful, alright, but getting to it strains credibility.
So, why then, is this a terrific picture?
Simply put – it works – in spite of the abovementioned hurdles, which ultimately, are not that strenuous for an audience to surmount.
The tale is a simple one. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight-year-old boy growing up in the cozy, comfy and idyllic world of Berlin. His Father (David Thewlis), a high-ranking officer receives a new assignment and is transferred to preside over Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi death camp. He moves his whole family – Bruno, an older sister and Mother (Vera Farmiga) to a huge country home. The death camps are just out of view of their new home, but Bruno soon notices that there is a farm he can see from a third story window – a farm populated by workers in striped pajamas. Bruno eventually and secretly makes his way to the “farm” where he meets a young Jewish boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who wears “striped pajamas” and lives on the “farm”. The two boys strike up a close friendship that grows, in spite of the strangeness of both of them living on two sides of the electrified barbed-wire fence. Bruno is innocent to the evil around him – his parents shelter him, to be sure, but his Father shelters the full truth about what’s going on in the camp from even his wife. Eventually, Bruno’s Mother realizes what her husband is presiding over. Her horrified response, the eventual disappearance of a Jewish prisoner who works as a domestic and the reality that a horrible fate awaits Shmuel begin to culminate in a spiral of emotional release and a whirlwind of tragedy.
The innocence of childhood against the backdrop of war is certainly not new territory, but what sets this picture apart from many others is the brilliant and consistent use of perspective. The point of view, for about 80% of the picture is that of Bruno’s. We are almost always seeing and hearing and experiencing things from the eyes of a child. This heightens our emotional response to the story, by forcing us to apply BOTH a perspective of innocence in addition to the awareness of adulthood (our own, that is). Remarkably, this does not split the focus, but has the unique effect of providing a sense of balance as we participate in the actions of the story – not in any journalistic sense, but in an emotional one
One picture I am reminded of when thinking about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, is Louis Malle’s immortal classic “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” – a picture that also details the innocent, but ultimately doomed friendship between two children on opposite sides of the fence (as it were). Malle’s picture is rooted, however, in memory. The perspective is that of Malle himself who chose to cinematically fictionalize his own experience as a child who was friends with a young Jewish boy during occupied France. The story is always filtered through that of a much older man who reflects back on his REALITY. “The Boy With The Striped Pajamas”, on the other hand, creates its OWN reality within a completely different structure – that of the fable.
And this is precisely why the picture works. It is, for all intents and purposes a fable – a succinct tale that uses its figures in the landscape to teach us (entertainingly) a moral lesson and, like all good fables, the didactic qualities of the form are supported by storytelling of the highest order. It is a world that first and foremost exists within its OWN world, while at the same time and in so doing, reflects OUR world. Within this context, the hurdles, or, if you will, potential flaws mentioned earlier, seem completely in keeping with the form in which the film is presented to us. The use of British accents, the suspension of disbelief on a number of fronts and the unabashed telling of a tale with a clear moral could, individually and certainly all together, result in wildly disparate and perhaps even negative responses.
It’s a bold move, especially considering the subject matter, and while I am not in the habit of applauding boldness for its own sake, the fact that it works so exquisitely is cause for celebration.
By the end of the picture, I felt transformed. I also felt utter devastation and was unable to leave my seat long after the end titles credits ended. One of the things that contributed to the powerful emotional feelings the picture elicited is the subtle, seamless, powerful and downright brilliant shift in perspective. The final portion of the picture shifts from the eyes of innocence to the eyes of adulthood, and, with eyes wide open, we are finally faced with the grim realities of what face us – not only within the context of the film, but within life itself.
Mankind has always lived in a world where genocide seems to be a sad fact of our existence. Stories such as these are always important ones to be told. Often, one reads criticism that there’s “nothing new” that can be done when examining the Holocaust dramatically. This, of course, is utter nonsense. As long as mankind exists, we will always have genocide until we all face and accept that this reality is so sickening and appalling that maybe, just maybe, as a species we will finally do something about it. Hopefully it will be art that contributes to exposing us to the terrible truths, but will also assist in removing the very definition of the word “genocide” from the dictionary – EXCEPT within a historical context.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may ultimately not be for everyone, but it’s a beautifully directed and acted tale of innocence maintained – in spite of the horror and pain of war.
Witnessing innocence NOT being lost is what finally moves us to both tears, and hopefully, to action.