The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas


Reviewed by: Robyn Jankel

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas tackles a tricky, largely overdone subject from an unusual point of view, with remarkably refreshing results. Set during the Second World War, the protagonist is Bruno, the eight-year-old son of a Nazi officer who runs a concentration camp situated at the end of their garden. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy of the same age living on the wrong side of the electric fence. The story focuses on this unexpected relationship, and the realities of life both inside and outside the compound.

Perhaps the most surprising – and effective – element of this story is Bruno’s father (David Thewlis). From the start he is portrayed as a softly-spoken gentleman, a loving father and a respected pillar of the community. With the emphasis on his humanity and his calm demeanour, it is all the more shocking to hear the way he describes the Jewish people who are being held in his camp. Nazi officers are usually seen in films as violent, despicable monsters with little trace of humanity, thereby giving the audience a free pass to hatred and separation from these apparently inhuman beasts. But by doing so, the deplorable truth of the Nazi view of the Jewish people is lessened significantly. The Nazis viewed the Jews as sub-human, partly to relinquish their own guilt at the violent truth of their actions. It is only through understanding their humanity that we can truly grasp the horror of their actions.

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In matters unrelated to his job, Bruno’s father is essentially a nice person. It makes it all the more shocking when we realise this unassuming, loving man genuinely views the Jewish people as worthy of nothing more than a tortuous existence leading to a violent death when we know that he is, frighteningly, as human as you or I. His calm explanation of the concentration camp and its inhabitants to his son – “they’re not even really people” – is so simple and rationally stated that it’s chillingly easy to see how such enormous swathes of the world were caught up in rampant anti-Semitism. It is this humanistic look which makes the film so much more real, and terrifyingly so.

Perhaps because it is based upon a children’s book or perhaps because it is free from the gloss of all-action Hollywood war movies, the best moments in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are the simple conversations which take place between Bruno and Shmuel. Mercifully abandoning the falsely verbose language which is forced upon so many children in films, their chats are effortless and unpretentious. The strain of conflict is painfully apparent, but it is the straightforward bond between the two lonely boys which really gives the story its soul. Propaganda and terror surround their lives but cosseted Bruno and persecuted Shmuel strike up a relationship for the simple reason that they are both human, and both in need of a friend.

This film uses its low budget and simple premise to its fullest effect and to produce visually and emotionally stunning results. The cinematography skilfully highlights the contrasts between the dreary, barren camp and its lush surroundings. An uncontrived and clean script helps the actors – in particular Vera Farmiga, as Bruno’s mother – give heartfelt performances, despite struggling with slightly exasperating naïveté throughout. Yes, some parts of the film may require further explanation, but this, surely, is the whole point? With the Holocaust slipping further and further away from our consciousness, and bigotry and racism running rife throughout the world with increasingly fatal consequences, it is of vital importance that children do not remain in the dark about such wide-reaching subjects. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is the ideal springboard for discussion and understanding and as such should be compulsory viewing for all school-aged children – and their parents – to understand the depths of the human spirit as seen through the stubborn, short-lived innocence of a child.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 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 ****
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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