The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas


Reviewed by: Caro Ness

There is inevitably debate about how much and when our children should know about Hitler’s Final Solution, but the truth is every generation should learn about the Holocaust since it seems that despite its horrors, humankind hasn’t learned lessons from it – witness the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia, and the treatment of the Palestinians.

Mark Herman’s powerful adaptation and direction of John Boyne’s brilliant and moving book is a film we should all see. Not least because of it’s unique look at the nature of evil through the eyes of a small boy.

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The impact of the film comes when this focus shifts from the boy, Bruno, to the parents and their different approaches to the Final Solution and from naïve and uneasy acceptance from the mother to dawning knowledge and utter rejection. With this shift, all the film’s tightly coiled tensions unfurl and nothing good can emerge.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight–year old boy who lives in Berlin with his father (David Thewlis), mother (Vera Farmiga) and sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie). They hear that Dad has got a promotion and are moving to the country. Bruno is not thrilled at leaving his friends and finds his new home is a friendless existence with no one to play with but his sister and no school to attend because his father has hired a propaganda-loving tutor to come to the home and brainwash his children. In Gretel’s case, as we see, to great affect, her gradually evolve in to a Hitler Youth, with the assistance of Lt Kotler (Rupert Friend), a young SS trooper in her father’s retinue on whom she has a crush.

Bruno sees through his bedroom window, in the distance, beyond the woods, what appears to be a farm, but the people on it, including children, are all dressed in pyjamas. He is determined to get there, despite his parent’s disapproval and knowledge because he wants to make new friends. And so he does, with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy.

When we first see Shmuel, it is a visceral shock – a young boy of eight with a shaven head and clothes three sizes too big for him. They become friends, and Bruno smuggles food out to his friend and plays games of draughts with him. Yet, much at home begs the question as to whether he should really be Shmuel’s friend and when Shmuel is drafted in to the house to clean glasses, Bruno, put on the spot by Lt Kotler, betrays his friend by claiming that he does not know him.

At the same time as Bruno starts asking questions about his father’s job, his mother does too. And she hates what her husband is becoming and how she has to turn a blind eye to atrocities that go on around her, such as the way the Jewish dogsbody in the home Pavel (David Hayman) is treated.

Gradually, she begins to see why her mother-in-law (Sheila Hancock) refuses to come to see them and she sees the hypocrisy that is under her nose. Her husband’s mother makes her feelings known about the situation constantly and nothing is done about it, but when Kotler lets slip that his father has similar ideas, he is shipped off to the front for not reporting him.

This film is as much about family, love and relationships as it is about the relentless evil of the Nazi’s Final Solution and that is as it should be. It is important to the original book and to the film, that in the midst of an unfathomable evil, friendships can be forged and strengthened and made to mean something.

My family recently took a trip to Auschwitz and Berkenau and it is the scale of the mass murder that floors you. Birkenau was 425 acres devoted to the industry of death, because not only did the Nazis kill countless Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and the elderly and infirm, they made money out of them by selling gold teeth, clothing and hair to make blankets and by persuading the Jews to pay money to buy land near the ‘holiday’ camps which were of course nothing of the sort.

You could aim a criticism at the film that the naivety of the children and the mother is impossible to believe but, having been to Auschwitz and Berkenau, I believe it. I am sure that thousands of Jews went to their deaths without realising what was happening. And if you too go to Berkenau, then you will think, horribly, like me, that those that died quickly were the lucky ones because to live in that camp for any length of time must have been the deepest misery possible. Likewise I can believe that the mother was kept in the dark because the SS were tremendously secretive and when Germany lost the war, they tried to hide what they had done in these death camps by blowing up the crematoria. Thankfully, for posterity, they did not succeed.

The attention to detail is second to none regarding costumes, locations and props. Even down to Mark Herman re-shooting the propaganda film that the Germans made to convince the Red Cross that the camps were holiday camps not death camps. and the film is beautifully shot, as Benoit Delhomme remarks, with contemporary lighting, to give a contemporary feel. But as Herman points out, there are bars everywhere, the trees in the forest, the compound around the house, the banisters on the stairs, the camp fence and these repeat throughout the film to reinforce the idea that we are all trapped, in worlds of our own making as well as those of us who are genuinely trapped.

This is a great film that because of its understated nature, packs a powerful punch. The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly from Asa Butterfield, who is in almost every frame and whose eyes seem to be mirrors, reflecting the injustices around him. James Horner provides a very good score which lifts the film along.

Reviewed on: 16 May 2009
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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:

Robyn Jankel ****
Amber Wilkinson ***

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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