The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of those good, but not great, movies that you wish you liked more than you actually do. It tackles a deadly serious subject—the Holocaust, and the moral complicity of those who made it happen—from a relatively fresh angle, and it is made with a certain degree of skill. At times, it is even quite powerful. And yet there is something about it that doesn't quite work.
The story is told from the point of view of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an eight-year-old boy whose Father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi officer who has just received a promotion, and must therefore take his family to a new home in "the countryside." This home, built in the Bauhaus style, turns out to be a cold, grey mansion that lacks the color and vitality of the family's previous home in Berlin; from Bruno's point of view, one might even call it a prison, but on a strictly metaphorical level.
Bruno, for his part, looks out his bedroom window and sees a much more literal sort of prison—that is, a concentration camp—in the distance, but assumes it is a "farm" because he simply doesn't know any better. He does wonder, though, why all the farmers wear striped pajamas. Eventually, against his parents' wishes, Bruno sneaks away and comes to a tall, electric, barbed-wire fence, and on the other side of this fence he sees—and befriends—a Jewish boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who also wears these "pajamas."
The film, adapted by writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) from the book by John Boyne, does an admirable job of encouraging us to see the story from Bruno's childlike perspective. An opening title quotes British poet John Betjeman to the effect that "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows," and the film encourages us to see Berlin, the countryside and the family that travels between them from this basically innocent point of view.
For one thing, despite the fact that most of the characters are German, they are all played by Brits, or by actors faking British accents. There is no attempt here, as there is in some English-language films about the Holocaust, to make the characters sound German, or "other"; instead, we are naturally inclined to identify and sympathize with these people. What's more, Bruno's father is played by Thewlis, an actor who has played his share of villains but may be best-known now as Remus Lupin, the friendly grown-up he plays in the Harry Potter series.
Here, he seems similarly positive, at first. It is only as we get to know his character that we see the uniform, and then the new home, and then the camp, and then the black clouds coming from the camp's furnaces—and we begin to wonder just how "involved" he is in the evil that is taking place there. Even when the father tells his son that some people aren't "really" people, we find ourselves experiencing the sort of denial we imagine Bruno would experience if he were ever to discover what his father was really up to. Surely this seemingly nice man couldn't be involved in such a horrific atrocity—could he?