Film

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Director: Mark Herman
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Amber Beattie, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-09-12 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2008-11-07 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

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.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.