November 20, 2008


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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13)
A young German boy befriends a Jewish boy during World War II in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a movie that delivers powerful, disturbing images while also being kind of wince-inducing.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is your standard little boy — soldier-obsessed and happily playing fighter jet with his friends through the streets of a prosperous-looking Berlin of the 1940s. The boys don’t seem to notice the neighborhoods where families are being hustled out of their homes and into trucks, but Bruno does notice the signs of change when he gets to his own household. Boxes are being moved out and flowers and other fancy party accoutrements are being taken in. Your father (David Thewils), a Nazi military officer, has been promoted, Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) tells Bruno and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie). Later, Father (Bruno’s parents aren’t given names) tells the kids they’ll be moving to a house out in the country. Bruno is sad to leave his friends and the city, and once they get to their new country house, he’s eager to meet the kids who live at “the farm” he can see from outside his window. On the farm, he tells his mother, all the people seem to be dressed in their pajamas. Mother quickly figures out that, despite her husband’s promises that the children will know nothing about what their father is doing “in the country,” Bruno has spotted the nearby concentration camp.

As the family’s stay in the country wears on, the proximity to such evil affects them all — Father grows immune to the cruelty of his soldiers, Mother freaks out when she learns the ultimate fate of the prisoners and Gretel, influenced by a tutor and a crush on one of her dad’s soldiers, becomes a booster of Nazism. Bruno, being 8 years old, doesn’t immediately catch on to what’s really happening in his backyard. One day, while exploring the woods behind his house, he comes upon the camp and meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy who is also 8 years old. Shmuel is behind the camp’s electrified fence, hiding behind a woodpile. Shmuel and Bruno are wary of each other at first, and Bruno is confused when Shmuel tells him he’s Jewish. But soon the urge for a friend transcends Bruno’s hazy preconceived ideas about “enemies” and the boys form a tenuous friendship.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is based on a young adult novel (which I’ve never read) that, based on descriptions, seems to get a lot of its power from the slow reveal of where Bruno is and what’s really going on around him. In a movie like this, there can be no slow reveal. Even if you’ve never seen a trailer (or the movie’s poster), one look at Bruno’s father’s uniform and you can pretty much guess exactly what he’ll be doing “in the country.” The fact that Bruno refers to the camp as “a farm” for at least half the movie and doesn’t understand that Shmuel is in prison (he complains at one point that Shmuel is lucky because he gets to play with his friends all day while Bruno is stuck outside the fence by himself) comes off as disturbingly too cutesy. Bruno’s innocence is the device that is supposed to carry us through the movie, but, told with moving pictures (instead of words on a page), some of the scenes come off not as moments rich in heartbreaking dramatic irony but as examples of galling emotional manipulation. Where I suspect the book was using subtlety, the movie is ham-fisted about the unlikely (and historically questionable, like many things in this movie) friendship.

Perhaps the movie couldn’t tell the story from Bruno’s point of view in the same way — it could have made up for this by filling in some context elsewhere. Bruno’s mother finds out accidentally what’s really happening at the camps (she sees smoke rising from one of the camp’s chimneys and a soldier makes a reference to its source). She is horrified — and yet the movie makes it clear that she knew about the existence of the camps when the family arrived. What did she think they were, what did she think was happening there? Likewise, much is made in the beginning of the movie about the disapproval of Bruno’s grandmother (Father’s mother) of the Nazis generally and Father’s job specifically. But we get no context for that disapproval, we never get to see what’s behind it. While I realize these things are outside what Bruno would know (and Bruno’s worldview is the movie’s worldview), the absence of explanation is both baffling and maddening. All these unfilled spaces leave the movie feeling incomplete.

And then there are the times when the movie gives us too much. As Gretel transforms from a 12-year-old girl toting around several dolls at a time to a girl obsessed, boy-band-style, with Hitler and the Nazis, we get a scene where Bruno finds all of her dolls piled up in the basement. The image is shocking and terrifying, it directly foreshadows what we in the audience know is going on at the camps. But the more I thought about it, it also seemed like kind of a cheap way to get me to feel that horror — why would her dolls be left as they are (disrobed and in piles as opposed to, say, just in a box)? There’s no other reason than to play on our (the audience members’) emotions in a way that isn’t really true to the story inside the movie.

The movie’s ending leaves you with a similar feeling. On the one hand, it is shocking, striking a note of to-the-core horror that seems appropriate considering the subject. But on the other hand, it seems somehow disrespectful to the actual horror of the actual history — which is so awful and so difficult to comprehend as part of the modern world that to dress it up with the cuteness of a couple of British children seems false and not nearly big and horrible enough. C

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust. Directed by Mark Herman and written by Herman (from a novel by John Boyne), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an hour and 33 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Miramax Films and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International.