Bruno (Asa Butterfield) likes to pretend he’s a pilot. It’s a great game, thrilling and exhausting: he and his like-minded friends dash through Berlin’s cobbled streets, their arms out wide and their faces pink with exertion. His dreams and self-image shaped by the world around him, Bruno appears to be living an eight-year-old’s idyll, adored by his sad-eyed mother (Vera Farmiga), mostly ignored by his 12-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), and oh so very proud that his father (David Thewliss) wears a uniform.
No sooner is this child’s fantasy established in the first scene of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas than it is undercut: as Bruno and his friends imagine soaring, the craning camera swoops away and out into the street just beyond their view, where men with guns are herding fretful citizens into a truck. The situation is instantly recognizable: the men are burly Nazis and their prisoners are Jews, huddled, anonymous, doomed.
This unsubtle, if cinematic, juxtaposition sets the tone for Bruno’s story. Adapted from John Byne’s children’s novel by director Mark Herman, it uses the boy’s experience as both revelation and indictment. As much as his parents endeavor to protect and instruct him, Bruno is bound to discover the pain and cruelty they try so hard to hide from him. The first pinprick in Bruno’s sense of security comes when his father announces he’s been given a promotion, one that entails “moving to the countryside.” As his face goes even paler than usual, the boy’s mother reassures him, “Think of it like an adventure,” she smiles, “like in one of your books.” Bruno’s not entirely convinced that leaving behind his friends is going to be fun. His father offers up a more practical and faux-noble way to think about what’s happening: “The thing about being a soldier,” he sniffs, “Is that life is not about choices. It’s more about duty.”
Dad is a true believer, a point made plain when his own mother (Sheila Hancock) chastises him at his own going away party. “You used to adore dressing up,” she says, eying his full dress uniform amid the cocktails, fancy-dress guests, and live music. “Does it make you feel special, the uniform? Or what it stands for?” Her son blanches, as her husband (Richard Johnson) tries to smooth over the situation, focusing not on what his son does for a living but on his son as such. “How long are we losing you for?” he asks, unaware, as his wife is, that their son is lost already. As the perfectly coiffed singer on stage offers a lilting saga of love gone wrong, Bruno’s mother gazes on this scene of hardly repressed outrage: what is it that her mother-in-law is seeing that she’s missing?
This becomes clear when the family arrives at their new home, the rooms large and echoey, the gate watched by a soldier with a German shepherd, the estate far from any sort of activity or community — save for the “farm” that Bruno espies from his bedroom window. Here he sees people dressed in pajamas as they bow to their labors; when he asks his father to explain, his answer is to reject the boy’s question, inspire tears in his mother’s eyes, and board up the window (“It’s out of bounds,” his parents insist). Bruno, self-appointed intrepid explorer, asks their longtime maid Maria (Cara Hogan) what she thinks about the place. She smiles wanly and murmurs, “It’s not for me to say.”
Bruno soon learns it’s not for anyone to say anything — especially as he observes his mother’s increasing disquiet and teary eyes, his father’s bouts of wrath and self-isolation, and foul smell of the thick black smoke belching from the farm’s chimneys. And so the child pursues his own adventures, determining to meet and “play with” the people in the striped pajamas. Sneaking out the back gate, he makes his way to the farm and meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the fact that they’re both eight enough to initiate even if they have to manage it while separated by a tall fence topped with barbed wire.
Even granting the preposterousness of this premise, Bruno’s gradual education by Shmuel is cloying in the extreme. Where the incessant teaching of Anne Frank’s story — as book, play, and movie — has helped millions of young people to comprehend at least the essential cruelties of the Holocaust, this movie’s annoying simplification is less aimed at children than at the childish adults who are supposed to watch over them. Watching Shmuel devour the scraps of food he provides, diminutive hero Bruno comes to sympathize with his new friend, wondering why he has to run off when summoned and what those folks in the background are doing, whether they’re wielding hammers or weapons.
At home, Bruno’s moral schooling is helped along by two opposite figures. First, his father calls in a bespectacled tutor, Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), who has him reading thick tomes on Jewish inferiority and Aryan brilliance. Second, and slightly more complicatedly, Bruno feels a genuine affection for the elderly servant in pajamas, Pavel (David Hayman), who identifies himself as a former doctor when he tends to the boy’s cut knee. Bruno’s inherent decency is here contrasted with his sister’s fatuousness. As blond Greta develops a crush on Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend), the pretty young guard assigned to drive their mother into town, she also comes to absorb his thinking: she papers her bedroom walls with images of the Führer and youth rallies.
None of his family members talks about the goings-on at the farm, and none of them pays much mind to the boy. While the source of his father’s negligence seems obvious, it’s completely unclear why his mother spends so little time with Bruno or Greta: the only time she appears on screen is when she’s getting in the car to go to town or returning, groceries and cut flowers in her arm. Yes, she’s serving here as a sign of the German civilian population’s willful ignorance of the camps, but her inattention to her children and relentless preoccupation with nothing (no guests, no housework, no correspondence) are actually distracting: you find yourself wondering what she’s up to, and how her sudden recognition of her husband’s activities (more precisely, her sudden concern that Bruno has been exposed to these activities) is rendered with big music and zoomy close-ups, in the end, less enlightening than melodramatic.