April 15, 2018

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Grade: 80/100

Director: Mark Herman
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis

What it's about. It is Germany during World War II. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an innocent grade-schooler. His twelve-ish older sister is Gretel (Amber Beattie). Their caring mother is Vera Farmiga, and their distant father is David Thewlis, a high-ranking Nazi military officer.

Thewlis is assigned to lead a concentration camp in the German countryside, and takes his family with him. There are no children there for Bruno to play with, and he becomes bored with his humorless tutor, Jim Norton. Bruno develops a fascination with the adjoining camp, and, because it is a movie, loiters at the perimeter of the camp. There, he befriends a Jewish boy his own age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), despite their physical separation by electrified barbed wire.

How others will see it. Classified as an art movie, a drama and tragedy, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas drew substantial critical praise. Most notably, Farmiga won Best Actress at the British Independence Film Awards, though her role was actually supporting. Writer/director Mark Herman also received awards and nominations from scattered festivals.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a big 156K user ratings. The user ratings are high, but there is a modest gender gap. Men give it a 7.7 out of 10, while women grade it 8.1.

Oddly, Mark Herman never followed up on his cinematic success, and appears to have walked away entirely from the movie industry. He had received positive reviews a decade earlier for Brassed Off and Little Voice, neither of which I have seen.

How I felt about it. Others have pointed out historical inaccuracies in this movie. The most obvious is that a boy could dig his way into the concentration camp in a few minutes, nearly oblivious to the electrified nature of the barbed wire designed to keep him out. We find it only his hands were small enough for the job.

If one looks hard enough for further objections, they are possible. Years ago, I read a review of the "Wonder Years" sitcom, in which the critic complained that the cutest boy in the class was the star of the show. The same can be said about the Young Sheldon sitcom today, and about our Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

A more substantial criticism concerns the movie's three Aryan characters that resist, in small ways, the Nazi genocide. Bruno's grandmother snubs or makes sarcastic remarks about the Nazis at every opportunity. Bruno's mother is aghast to learn that the "work camp" adjoining their country villa actually exists to exterminate the Jewish population, and this leads to arguments with her Nazi husband. And Bruno himself wants to help Shmuel, by smuggling food and even entering the camp to help his friend find his father.

The problem with Bruno's grandmother and mother opposing the Nazi regime, to any extent, is that they imperil the family's position, and risk government punishment. Thus, they would soon learn to keep their mouths shut. True, Bruno's mother might implore her husband to relocate her and the children away from the camp, but she would be vague on specifics.

Of course, it is key to the plot that Bruno inadvertently ends up in the concentration camp. What makes the film so compelling is its ending. Still, Bruno stubborn innocence in the face of strident antisemitic remarks by his sister, tutor, and father is difficult to believe.

Despite these fairly petty complaints, there is much to admire about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. There have been many films made about the plight of European Jews during World War II, but this one is better than nearly all of them. The top reason is the quality of Mark Herman's adapted screenplay. His direction is also good, and provides further proof that films are better when the director controls the script.

The film's theme, thankfully, is not that good triumphs over evil, when we know that it often does not. The movie does imply that evil policies cause great collateral damage, that ultimately forces the instigators to recognize the implications of what they have done. Bruno's father doesn't care if millions of Jews are exterminated. But when that policy causes the death of his own son, he is finally devastated.

The movie also demonstrates how easily the innocent can become corrupted by sinister propaganda. Bruno's sister, barely an adolescent, abandons her dolls to embrace Nazi party doctrine, despite its illogical diatribes against Jews. Even Bruno is compelled to deny his friendship with Shmuel, to stay out of trouble.