Review: Boy in the Striped Pajamas is sad and poignant

November 21st, 2008 at 8:36 am by under Entertainment

Boy in the Striped Pajamas is sad and poignant – through its tragic innocence – it really is the saddest movie of the year.

Anytime you see a period-piece set during the time of the Holocaust… you know it will be sad and depressing, but Boy in the Striped Pajamas is played with a sensitive hand that finds humanity in such an inhumane place.
"Boy in the Striped Pajamas" courtesy Miramax “Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

(2008) (rated:PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust) (1 hr, 33 min)

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Jack Scanlon, Cara Horgan, Amber Beattie,
Rupert Friend, David Hayman

Director: Mark Herman

Genre: Drama/Historical-Period Piece

The Plot: Set during World War II, a story seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a concentration camp, whose forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and unexpected consequences.

MY TAKE (beware of spoilers): This is a sad movie, there’s really no way to make a movie set in the time of the Holocaust and make it relevant without being sad, but this movie really tries to focuses on one particular part of that tragic time in our world history.   While we are not shown all the atrocities, the movie hints at them throughout.

"Boy in the Striped Pajamas" courtesy Miramax What we see of the world during the time of the Holocaust is a naive view through 8 year old Bruno’s wide blue eyes, everything is revealed from his sheltered point of view.   Bruno’s father is an officer in the Nazi Army, and as typical of boys, we see him playing in the opening scene where we get our first hint of his naivete as Bruno and his friends are playing like they are fighter pilots, flying through the neighborhood – from the opulence of the Germans in one neighborhood, to the Jews being rounded up by the Nazis in another neighborhood.

The imagery in this movie is rich, very clear and very intentional: from the costumes like the differences in the clean, expensive clothes that the Germans wear compared to the dirty, tattered clothes the Jews wear at the concentration camp to the set pieces like the comparison between Bruno’s old home that is vibrant and full of life to their new home that is dull and dungy on the outside with just white walls and black trim inside.

At the new house, Bruno’s 12 year old sister Greta isn’t much of a playmate, so he is so bored, he plays checkers with himself.   He is so desperate for friends and something to do, he begins exploring and tries to find out what’s going on at the “farm” behind the house, which turns out to be a concentration camp.

Again, more of Bruno’s innocence as he refers to it as a farm, and when he gets his first up close encounter with Pavel, the house servant, who is weak from all his work and wearing “pajamas”, Bruno just doesn’t understand.   Bruno falls off a tire swing at one point and Pavel helps bandage his skinned knee, and Bruno later refers to Pavel as silly because he gave up being a doctor to become a potato peeler.

The director further reinforces the images of Bruno’s innocence while Bruno plays around the home, there is the reality of the war (truckloads of troops) and the concentration camp going on around him.   Like the wiff of black smoke he sees – we know its from the burning of bodies at the concentration camp – but Bruno only refers to it as the “chimneys”.

"Boy in the Striped Pajamas" courtesy Miramax Bruno’s desperation to find friends to play with leads him through the backyard and to the “farm” when he meets another 8 year old, Shmuel a Jewish boy sitting just inside the fence of the concentration camp.   Their relationship has a cute beginning as Bruno reacts to Shmuel’s name, saying “I never heard that name before” and Shmuel responds to Bruno’s name, saying ”I never heard that name before”.

But their relationship goes through several twists and turns, and Bruno’s desperation ramps up as his innocence continues, saying to Shmuel from outside the fence “its not fair, I’m stuck over here, while you’re over there playing with friends all day”.   Bruno thinks that Shmuel, who is always seen pushing a wheelbarrow to and from his meeting spot with Bruno, is playing games because of the number on his “pajamas”.

There is more clever imagery as Bruno finds a pile of dolls in the cellar – symbolic of the number of kids that have been killed in the camp.

Bruno’s innocence continues as he later discovers the fence is electric, but he thinks its for keeping animals out, even Shmuel thinks its just burning old clothes.  Later, when Pavel, the Jewish house servant is beat up by a Nazi officer, Bruno is bothered that his dad did nothing to stop it, saying “dad just sat there”. Bruno starts putting the puzzle together, telling his sister that “dad is in charge of a horrible place” and Greta replies “only horrible for them”.  Bruno even asks Shmuel is he ever thought his dad wasn’t a good man.

Bruno’s innocence and naivete is a parallel to the many of the people of Germany and the world who were naive to what the Nazis were really doing – as he gets a sneak peek of his father and other Nazi officers watching a newsreel about the “camp” – its a twisted, unrealistic version of the camp to make it appear the Jews were being treated humanely.

Eventually, Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel leads to an inevitable and tragic end.

"Boy in the Striped Pajamas" courtesy Miramax Vera Farmiga shines as Bruno’s mother Elsa.  She starts out as the doting wife/mother, but eventually she figures out what is going on at their new home and her disgust and worry begin to show – on her face and in her overall appearance as she goes from well put together woman to someone who looks like they are totally ignoring their appearance – her hair is messed up, she’s not wearing make up, she’s slouching, talking “out of turn” and talking down to her husband.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While this story may be partly fictional, it is grounded in the history of the Holocaust and is an important piece of history that people should know and understand, if they haven’t seen movies like Schindler’s List, this is a movie to see or add to the understanding of those dark times of world history.  I give it 7.5 out of 10… like Schindler’s List, this is a movie that will stay with you for a long time.

So what did you think?  Please post a comment!

 

 

“Boy in the Striped Pajamas” courtesy Miramax

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