Andy Bockelman: ‘Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ features humanistic drama
December 20, 2008
Featuring an unusual angle on a distressing topic matter, the wartime drama “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a look at one of the most shocking periods in the history of mankind through the eyes of a child.
Transplanted from his comfortable home in Berlin, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) unhappily moves into a country home, as necessitated by the career of his soldier father (David Thewlis). His mother (Vera Farmiga) assures him that he will learn to adjust to the lack of children in the isolated area, but Bruno misses his friends and even his school.
However, he is intrigued by a farm that can only be seen from the house through his bedroom window. When he tells his parents about the farmers who wear striped pajamas, his portal to the outside world is promptly boarded up because his father – a high-ranking officer in the Nazi army – does not want his son to realize they are living next to a work camp.
Bruno’s curiosity gets the better of him when he finds a way to get to the “farm” and at the edge of the enclosure he meets a boy his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). As he learns more about his new friend, Bruno begins to wonder what the people in pajamas could have done to upset his father and his associates.
Butterfield is a wunderkind as the boy whose innocence and naÃivete are whittled away little by little the more he takes in with his new surroundings and the people he observes. Scanlon is heart-rending as near-emaciated Shmuel, whose shaved head and poor dental appearance exacerbate his stolen youth.
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Farmiga and Thewlis are well-matched as Bruno’s gentle mother and forceful, yet loving father. David Hayman has a few fine moments as Pavel, a death camp prisoner assigned to be a servant in Bruno’s new home, leaving the young man with the impression that his personal attendant truly loves peeling potatoes for a living.
Taking a cue from films like “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the movie focuses primarily on the human element of the Holocaust era.
Even still, the impressionable nature of children is covered from both ends of the spectrum as Bruno’s older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), soaks up Nazi propaganda much easier than her brother. A symbolic scene involving a pile of her discarded dolls evokes the ghastly images of death camp victims.
This kind of multi-layered sugar coating lulls the audience into a false sense of security until the last minutes of the film. At this point, the emotional impact is almost overpowering in a harrowing finale that fades into a solemn silence.
Although it loses something in the translation of John Boyne’s novel – the predominately British cast does not even attempt to speak with German accents – “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is an altogether excellent and tender portrayal of a horror that few can comprehend much better than the youthful protagonists.