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“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” seems a strangely pleasant name for a film about the Holocaust, and yet such paradox is consistent with the movie as a whole. Based on the novel by John Boyne, it reveals the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp through the eyes of a naïve German boy. Throughout the film, the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the unbelievable atrocities committed by the Nazis during Word War II facilitates poignant reflection on the divisions created by racism and torn down by friendship.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the eight-year-old son of a Nazi Captain (David Thewlis) who has been transferred to the German countryside to oversee a concentration camp. Bruno, leaving behind his friends and home in Berlin, is anything but ecstatic about his family’s move to a lonely country estate. However, he soon takes a keen interest in the “farm” that he sees from his bedroom window. “Why do the farmers wear pajamas?” Bruno asks his mother, Elsa (Vera Farmiga). The “farm” is actually the concentration camp his father supervises. After finding out about the nearby camp, Elsa forbids Bruno to go exploring behind the house, and Bruno, of course, disobeys her instructions. During his exploration of the camp’s perimeter, he comes upon a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sitting on the other side of the large electric fence.
Unable to comprehend the gravity of Shmuel’s situation, Bruno is simply content to have found a playmate. Though Bruno is confused by Shmuel’s constant hunger and the strange “pajamas” he wears, the boys forge a fast friendship. Bruno brings Shmuel food smuggled from his kitchen and the pair finds ways to play ball and checkers despite the electric fence between them. Bruno is confused by the anti-Semitic propaganda spouted by his tutor, Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), and doesn’t associate his new friend with the portrayal of Jews in the books he’s forced to read.
Bruno’s naïveté is one of the film’s most heart-wrenching yet endearing aspects, and Butterfield portrays his character with the poise and adeptness of a much older actor. Despite an impressive cast of British actors, including David Thewlis—who plays Severus Snape in the more recent “Harry Potter” movies—Butterfield’s performance is the most striking. The effortlessness and skill with which he portrays Bruno draws the audience into what can be, at times, a repetitive plot. Vera Farmiga, as Bruno’s mother, also stands out in the film. As she becomes weighed down by the shocking truth of the concentration camps, Elsa’s health begins to deteriorate. Farmiga portrays Elsa’s breakdown in mind and body with convincing honesty and vulnerability.
The film suffers from some minor flaws which detract from the overall effect. The main interaction between Bruno and Shmuel becomes repetitive after a while. However, the various subplots and Bruno’s internal struggle keep the film from dragging too much. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” seems somewhat muted and slow for a Holocaust movie, but it’s this same slowness that makes the moments of intense emotion even more powerful.
The most salient aspect of the film is the way it contrasts youth, innocence, and friendship with the violence of the Holocaust. The horrors of the Nazi concentration camp are made all the more atrocious when placed against the simplicity of Bruno and Shmuel’s relationship. The two boys live a parallel, yet drastically dissimilar existence. The audience is acutely aware of the irrational divisions of society and how they create these two tangent and feuding worlds. The fence, symbolic of the separation produced by hate, however, is easily circumvented by those who don’t know how to hate yet.
Despite a seemingly endless number of films about the Holocaust, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” carves out its own niche in the genre. Rather than focusing on violence, the film uses it as a backdrop for the story of Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship. The exploration of this personal relationship between a Nazi officer’s son and a Jewish boy is something unique and creates a world apart from socially constructed hate.
“We’re not supposed to be friends, you and me. We’re meant to be enemies. Did you know that?” Bruno asks Shmuel. This simple refutation of social expectations is at the heart of the film, and is a large part of its appeal. Director Mark Herman is able to capture the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, in a way that leaves his audience heartbroken, but ultimately hopeful that human kindness and friendship can triumph in an evil society.
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