The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

In recent years some filmmakers have been expressing their concerns on celluloid that the horrors of the Second World War death camps might be diminishing in our memories. Documentarian Rex Bloomstein voices his concerns over the appalling notion of ‘Holocaust fatigue’ through Mauthausen-exploration KZ, while short filmmaker Jes Benstock touches on how the passage of time affects our perceptions in The Holocaust Tourist.

Films about the period then, are largely to be welcomed and, some might argue, films which illustrate this dark part of Europe’s history in a way children can understand are even more essential. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is based on the book of the same name by John Boyne – a book which, with its eight-year-old protagonist, was squarely aimed at older children and stirred up considerable controversy as a result.

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It – and the film – tell the story of Bruno. A young, and at times somewhat unrealistically naïve German boy, who moves with his soldier dad and mum to the countryside thanks to dad’s work. Daddy’s employment, however, isn’t just regular soldier stuff, he is, in fact, the commandant of the local concentration camp. Bruno is completely in the dark about this and, on spotting what he assumes is a farm from his bedroom window, is understandably curious about why the farmers are wearing pyjamas.

Bored and with no friends but his sister – imagine Just William’s Violet Elizabeth as part of the Hitler Youth – he goes ‘exploring’ despite his mother’s urgings to stay in the front garden and finds he can sneak out into the woods at the back of his home. It is on one of his outings that he comes across the barbed wire fence at the edge of the ‘farm’. On the other side is a little boy of the same age, Shmuel. He tells Bruno this isn’t a farm, but his grasp of the situation is also limited by his years and talk soon moves away from such stuff to chatter of friendship and games of draughts.

As dad’s minions start work on the ‘Final Solution’ and the atmosphere at home darkens when mum (who has clearly fallen out of the nearest naivety tree, too) finds out about it, the boys forge a friendship, which is unlikely to end in a beautiful sunset.

The biggest problem with Mark Herman’s film is the question of which audience he is aiming at. The film’s 12A certificate is prohibitive for younger children – though with parental guidance kids as young as 10 might well get something from it – and yet the manner in which many of the themes are presented is simply too simplistic for an older audience, used to tougher cinematic fare such as Schindler’s List and Fateless.

Herman has retained a ‘fairytale’ edge to his lensing, using rich, warm colours of Bruno’s house in contrast to the steely blues and greys and washed-out browns that surround Shmuel – although everything has a slightly-too-clean feel, as preferred by BBC period drama (the film was made in association with Auntie Beeb). Some of these fairytale aspects extend to the story. The Holocaust is a big issue to get a young head around and, by sticking with the naivety of the children, Herman cleverly exposes its horrors in all the more detail and there is no denying his emotional pay off falls on your heart with the weight of an anvil.

The adult performances are excellent, with David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga representing the grown up voices on both sides of the political fence, while on either side of the all-too-real electric wire of the camp Asa Butterworth and Jack Scanlon also put in decent turns, although Butterworth’s accent, in particular, has a whiff of ‘posh stage school’. Not so much simplistic, then, as childlike, Herman’s film is certainly thought-provoking and would make rewarding viewing for school children but over 16s may find it a little too naïve for its own good.

Reviewed on: 11 Sep 2008
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The son of a Nazi officer forges an unlikely frienship.
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Read more The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas reviews:

Caro Ness ****
Robyn Jankel ****

Director: Mark Herman

Writer: Mark Herman, based on the novel by John Boyne

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Sheila Hancock Rupert Friend

Year: 2008

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: UK, US


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