Three stars (PG-13)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on a 2006 novel by John Boyne, is about a German family during WWII that moves to a home in the country so that Dad can be close to his new job. The new job is running a concentration camp and the bulk of the story deals with the younger child in the family and his attempts to make sense of the unexplained goings-on near his house. The kid’s-eye view of the Holocaust, which had its North American premiere at the Heartland Film Festival last month, is played low-key, with most of the horrors kept off screen. The movie starts quietly, with the tension slowly growing over its 94 minutes as the mother and children gradually begin to realize the reality of Dad’s position.
As you would expect, the movie packs a punch, but how strongly it moves you will likely depend on how willing you are to accept the convoluted machinations of the story. There are major holes in logic and the film is extremely manipulative. Clearly, the production is intended to be a fable set near one of the biggest horrors in history. Fables are accorded greater leeway than regular fiction, but I had trouble granting that leeway. I realized the point of the film and appreciated the efforts of the filmmakers, but ...
Before addressing my misgivings, here’s the basics of the story. It opens with a party in Berlin (Budapest really) celebrating father Ralf’s (David Thewlis) promotion to a new job. While mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga), daughter Gretel (Amber Beattie) and young son Bruno (Asa Butterfield) are not happy about moving to the country, the only person who aggressively objects is Grandma (Sheila Hancock), who knows about the Nazi Party and hates to see her son rising through its ranks.
Once at the new home, the family tries to adjust. There are a lot of soldiers in the area and sometimes there is black smoke, accompanied by a terrible smell, coming from someplace nearby. Bruno goes exploring — against parental orders — and eventually finds himself near the fence of what he believes to be a neighboring farm. Behind the fence, he meets and eventually befriends a boy his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Seeing Shmuel and the other occupants of the facility wearing “pajamas,” Bruno reckons that some elaborate game is being played. The numbers on each person’s clothing must somehow be part of the game. While Shmuel assures Bruno that there is no game being played, he can’t explain much. He is only 8, after all, and the grown-ups haven’t explained much to him.
The film is heartfelt and I was left shaken when the closing credits rolled. Still, I never was able to fully surrender to the filmmakers. Most problematic were Bruno’s frequent visits with his new friend Shmuel. Where were the guards? How does a kid slip away for long periods of time to talk and play across the fence with the son of the head of the concentration camp? I kept telling myself, “It’s a fable, just go along with it,” but my brain wouldn’t cooperate. As the film progresses and things happen that I can’t reveal here, the glaring lack of monitoring by the prison guards becomes even harder to ignore. And the manipulation, good grief, the manipulation! After the movie ends and you stagger out of the theater, it’s hard not to think, “Wow, did they ever have to twist and turn everything to make that happen.”
Still, the film is gripping and well-acted. Everyone in the cast speaks with British accents (including American Vera Farmiga), but I didn’t mind that. I understood that using English instead of German with subtitles would broaden the potential audience. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deals with what happens when the ignorance of a group of German citizens to the Holocaust begins to clear away and they are forced to face the truth. If something like that is never to happen again, we can’t afford to be ignorant or inactive. I suggest you sit down and make a list of massive post-Holocaust atrocities that did not receive the attention they deserved by most of the world. Don’t forget Rwanda.