The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis
Much praise has been heaped on this new slice of Miramax Oscar-fodder - a Holocaust story taken from the point of view of a child of Nazi parents who befriends young boy in a Concentration Camp, but who is not aware of the full implications of his imprisonment.
It's World War II Germany and Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight year old. His father (David Thewlis), a Nazi SS man has been reassigned to the country were he, his wife(Vera Farmiga) and Bruno will be moving to live. Bruno is too young to understand such complicated things like war, death, and specifically concentration camps. We hear conversations and conflicts about the treatment of Jews and the heinous activities in the camps from the child's point of view. Therefore terms like the "Final Solution" are never used, nor even the word Jew.
Bruno, an only child living in a remote area exercises his exploring nature by wondering off the compound to investigate what he thinks is a farm nearby. But its actually a concentration camp. Bruno makes friends with a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who 'looks funny' in his striped pyjamas. Not even Shmuel will let Bruno in on the big secret. Despite objections of his mother Bruno continues to see Shmuel, which, as the war comes to an end, could become a dangerous friendship to maintain.
The film is singular in it’s concept – one paper thin idea of implausiblty is the brush that paints the entire film. It's even told to us in the on screen literary quote off the top. It’s a shame to denounce the film based on a bad reaction to one particular plot hole, but there’s no other layers to examine. The central plot point of the film is that Bruno, an eight year old, can be so completely naïve to everything around him to believe that a Concentration Camp is actually a farm.
It’s possible to believe that Bruno would not understand the concept of genocide or unjust incarceration based on religion, but writer/director Herman (working from a novel as source material) tries to convinces us that Bruno does not even understand the concept of a prison. Really, what eight year old would not know that people wearing striped outfits, who perform manual labour in a fenced-in compound protected by electrical fences and barbed wire are PRISONERS?
If you fail to make this leap of believability then the movie simply falls apart like broken leaves. And so, every emotionally manipulative moment either drips with syrupy preachiness or is fed to us with unsubtle blunt force.
The film also feels so completely inauthentic, which exacerbates its irresponsibility. It’s always been a Hollywood convention to use British actors or British accents as a substitute for real Germans. Unfortunately the fact that no attempt was made to even cast a German in any significant role is too distracting to ignore. Various British accents populate the German landscape, high class aristocrats to working class droles. Asa Butterfield, accent aside, is in almost every scene and performs well. Physically, he could pass as a German. Unfortuately his Jewish counterpoint Shmuel who is supposed to be in a concentration camp looks like a cute British boy with chubby cheeks, big ears and some dirt on his face.
Bruno’s parents played by Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis only react and are so passive they are as important to the film as the furniture in the room. So, other than young Butterfield, there little else to hang one's hat on.
Herman just bombards us with tragic irony, force fed to us with repetitive sadistic force. The finale is emotional and controversial, but it's not earned - just the culmination of a series of manipulative contrivances.