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'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' Peers at the Holocaust Through a Child's Eyes

This story of an improbable friendship between an eight-year-old German and a boy in a concentration camp is a standard if unimpressive Holocaust drama with a completely irresponsible ending.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Director: Mark Herman
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Jack Scanlon
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Miramax
Release date: 2011-06-19

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas prompted a discussion about spoilers in the New York Times after Manohla Dargis’ damning review gave away the full ending of the film, a decision Dargis defended as necessary for getting across why she felt so strongly about the film. I mention this only because the end of Boy in the Striped Pajamas does encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film. I won’t give it away, though, since Dargis has already done the job for me. If you would like, you can follow the link and find out what happens for yourself.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an adaptation of John Boyne’s novel and tells the story of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of a Nazi commander who is uprooted from his life in Berlin when his dad gets promoted to a new job in the countryside. Just a few miles from Bruno’s new house, within sight of his bedroom window, is a "farm" where the workers are dressed in striped "pajamas". A lonely Bruno goes exploring one day and starts up an improbable friendship with one of the child "farmers", even though an electric barbed wire fence separates the two.

You get the idea. Starting with the epigraph and continuing on to the final shot, the film puts childhood innocence at the forefront. Through that filter it also tries to show how propaganda can even turn adults into naïve spectators to great horrors. As the cast and crew of the film constantly state in the extras, the film is meant to be true to the phenomenon of Germans who lived so close to the concentration camps but were blind to their purpose.

Unfortunately, there’s little subtlety to the affair. Bruno is the naïve child who reads adventure stories, wants to be an explorer, and doesn’t 'get' what’s going on right in front of him. He's contrasted with his sister, only 12, who acts older than her age, quickly buys into the propaganda her tutor feeds her, and begins to plaster her room with swastikas and pictures of Hitler.

Almost everyone in the film is either given completely to the Nazi plan or ignorant of its reality. Any moments of inner conflict that do arise – when Bruno and his mother start to figure out what’s going on – last for mere minutes. The characters quickly come out on the other side, as sure of their new views as they were of their old ones.

This makes the story lack any real edge or interest. There’s no question about who is good and evil in this scenario, but a movie about how Germans could have confused the two would need to blur the lines a little, at least for the sake of argument. Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes the point of view of an eight-year-old, but stops short of giving us a standard, melodramatic Holocaust drama. It’s all firework dramatics and slap-in-the-face moral lessons, which is entertaining and useful as far as that goes, but nothing novel just because of its innocent protagonist.

And then there’s that ending, at which point the movie goes from being harmless and not particularly good to being irresponsible. There’s a lot to be said for the perspective that a child’s view on the world can provide. But in this case that innocent perspective is taken advantage of and used to create an over-the-top, unbelievable, melodramatic ending. The fact that this is done in a film about the Holocaust is even more disconcerting.

This new Blu-Ray release comes with a fairly standard making-of documentary and an average audio commentary by writer-director Mark Herman and Boyne. Both give some interesting information about the adaptation process, but nothing enlightening. The deleted scenes, meanwhile, were justifiably removed from the final cut. They would have added nothing but bloat to the proceedings, and as such add little to the movie experience as an add-on.

3

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