The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I was looking for something to watch - something dramatic and historical, not just an entertainment piece. I actually was looking to see The Book Thief, but, that movie not being available to me at the moment, I was offered a different film set in the same era. And so it was that I found myself watching a film I hadn't heard of before - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Set during the Holocaust, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas follows Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an eight-year-old boy whose father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi soldier. Upon receiving a promotion, Bruno's father tells his family that they will be leaving Berlin and relocating to a new home on the countryside. Bruno is upset to be leaving the home he loves and his friends, but his mother (Vera Farmiga) and twelve-year-old sister (Amber Beattie) look at this new move as an adventure. Bruno's grandfather (Richard Johnson) is proud of his son's achievement, but his grandmother (Sheila Hancock) is horrified at the new position her son has taken.
Upon arriving at their new home, the family soon realizes it is not what they expected. Soldiers traipse in and out of the home. One in particular, Lt. Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend), takes a particular interest in Bruno's sister, but Bruno has an immediate distrust of the man, perhaps sensing the brutality that lies beneath the charm. Bruno is completely distraught about his new living arrangement. He has been told he cannot leave the grounds of his new home and the only children he can see live some distance away on what he believes is a farm.
Despite what he has been told, Bruno is an adventurer and he heads off into the woods behind his house, eventually coming upon a barbed wire fence surrounding the "farm" he saw from his bedroom window. It is there that he meets a boy his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). As he begins to find ways to play with this young boy through the barbed wire, he soon learns that what he has been told about Jews and the camps they are living in is not true. But why would his father's tutor (Jim Norton) lie to him and what harm could there be in playing with another child his age, despite their differences?
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was based on the novel of the same name by John Boyne. Many who have read the book and/or seen the film have found fault with the book's premise, saying that the relationship that develops between these two young boys on either side of the death camp fence is not plausible. I think that these individuals are missing the point entirely. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not about an implausible friendship formed between two boys separated by barbed wire during the Holocaust.
There has to come a time when people don't just see a movie for its face value and start to look at what lies beneath - the symbolism of things. Bruno's view of the world is what is important. It is his naivety that we are meant to see, but not as Bruno's per se. In reality, his naivety is actually symbolic of that of the German people as a whole, who refused to see the reality of what was happening right under their noses. They lapped up the propaganda about the Jews, the camps that the Nazis moved them to, the lies about the soldiers and how they would help keep them safe. Very few argued with these ideas and those that did were punished severely.
Bruno's sister represents those children who became indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda, eventually serving their government as members of the Nazi youth groups. His mother represents those in Nazi Germany who chose to accept what was happening, ignoring the horrors and choosing to believe that it would all be over soon. She realizes all too late just what she has allowed her children to be exposed to...she realizes too late that Jews are humans just like herself and don't deserve to be treated the way they are at the camp. And yet, like those many individuals who either pretended not to know or were actually that naive, when she did finally understand it all, she did nothing to stop it. Instead, she chose to push the horror away, demanding to move away from it so she could not see or smell it.
Bruno's father represents those Nazi officers who truly believed they were doing the right thing...who believed in duty over reasoning and carried out their duties as ordered. To Bruno's father, what happens at the end of this film represents a horrible accident, but I doubt it would change his mind about his duty. Bruno and Shmuel are the people who saw no difference between themselves, choosing to enjoy each other's company despite the dangers...or perhaps in spite of them. Their acceptance of one another despite their differences is a message to us all and what happens to these two boys serves as a reminder of what horrors await should we decide to ignore the signs or play dumb and allow the same thing to happen again.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is filled with symbolism and that is what the critics should have been focusing on - not the storyline, but the story behind the storyline and the messages the movie and the book meant to teach. For that reason alone, I would recommend this film, never mind the excellent acting, particularly by the young members of the cast. In my opinion The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an important film for all to see.