[20 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.
When his father is promoted inside the Nazi party, Bruno and his family are forced to move from their comfortable manor in midtown Berlin and out into the distant, isolated countryside. From his new bedroom window, our hero can see a local “farm”. There, dozens of people go about their daily drudgery wearing nothing but their “bedclothes.” When he asks his mother about this fact, she is livid. Bruno is never to go near the place, ever. But the kindly acts of a “servant” named Pavel, also always wearing said “pajamas”, keeps him interested. Finally, Bruno finds his way to the location. There he meets Shmuel, a little boy who informs him that where he lives is not a farm, but a prison, and soon, the pair becomes uncomfortable friends. Naturally, neither sees the tragedy that is brewing behind the scenes.
When you hear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is going to focus on concentration camps and the German genocide of World War II from a child’s perspective, visions of Roberto Benigni’s awful Life is Beautiful instantly come to mind. While not a comedy (thank god), Mark Herman’s take on John Boyne’s novel has all the same trite trappings. We get intense suffering filtered through a family-oriented fallacy, no direct assessment of the atrocities offered, and a surreal ending in which the Nazis, not the Jews, are meant to garner our sympathies. This is not meant as some revisionist, regressive take on history’s most horrendous crime. There’s no denials here, just a literary take on the material that can’t quite survive the big screen translation.
Indeed a lot of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas appears to play better on the page then on film. Bruno’s youthful unease, his need to satisfy his sad boy curiosity, has all the trappings of a fascinating read. By the time he gets to the “forbidden” back garden, with its maze like walls and lack of a legitimate egress, you can feel the faux adventure tale looming. But Herman (best known for such interesting tragic-comedies as Brassed Off and Little Voice) takes everything so literally that all the potential magic goes missing. Even worse, once we meet up with the depressing little boy on the outskirts of the camp confinements, the movie goes flat. Bruno and Shmuel don’t really become friends. They’re more like individual objects of mutual fascination.
Indeed, the most irritating aspect of this movie is the lack of a larger perspective. Keeping things at a kid’s level may make the subject matter a little less unwieldy, but that doesn’t mean that the realities of the Holocaust need to be shunned, or at the very least, saved until the calculating, mawkish ending. Shmuel is seen as easily avoiding the guards, capable of long stretches by himself without supervision or suspicion. Similarly, Bruno can lounge outside the camp for hours on end, nary a sentry or prison perimeter inspection to be seen. Certainly there are aspects of the narrative that must be taken as fictional givens. All film works that way. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas definitely pushes such credibility gaps.
Then there’s the basic story in general. The Nazi family, with the slightest exception of the Hitler Youth loving daughter and bound to duty Dad, are portrayed as uncomfortable in their role as ethnic cleansers. While the newly appointed Commandant never shirks from his responsibility, he does spend a few pensive moments seemingly doubting his decision. And yes, Bruno’s big sister Gretel appears poised to take up the Aryan cause at the drop of a propaganda poster. But she also is given a more normative, adolescent reason for her newfound interest in the fatherland - a blond himbo in uniform named Lieutenant Kotler. Of course, once she learns of the realities surrounding her family, mother goes from strong to strung out, desperate for some relief from the guilt and casual culpability.
Yet, oddly enough, we are willing to accept some or all of this approach until the last act contrivance that finds Bruno running around the camp trying to help Shmuel find his missing father. This is again an issue that works well within the confines of the mind’s eye, a place where anything is truly possible. But Herman has a hard time making the logistics work. It’s as if the carefully laid out characters we’ve see throughout the first 80 minutes of the movie disappear, replaced by rigid, non-reactive robots. Desperate to leave her own sort of prison, Mother makes a bid to get her children out of the area. But she then allows Bruno to slip away, suspiciously, without a legitimate motive. Similarly, when he goes missing, the camp appears to be the last place anyone thinks of looking.
At this point, even the consistently fine performances from David Thewliss (as the father), Vera Farmiga (as Mother) and little Asa Butterfield (as Bruno) can’t salvage the schmaltz. Tuned in film fans will know where this storyline is going the minute our lead decides to put on a prison uniform to help with the search. As we wait for the denouement, Herman upends 60 years of history, turning the plight of the Jews into a mechanism for Bruno’s familial comeuppance. Perhaps in print the finale felt like just war crime desserts. Here, it’s either devastating or completely inappropriate, depending on your take. It’s the same rub aimed at Benigni’s ballsy, “it’s just a game” routine. Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.