The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Friends amid the madness
Films that combine the Holocaust and children are generally, and correctly, understood to be a really bad idea. Nothing trivializes mass murder like cliches of youthful innocence; nothing says "kitsch" like death-camp kiddie sentiment. Yet filmmakers keep mixing the two with the best of intentions, from Jerry Lewis (whose "The Day the Clown Cried" remains an unscreened legend of bad taste) to Roberto Benigni (whose "Life Is Beautiful" won three Oscars while making some of us cringe in dismay).
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," then, is something of a litmus test. Because its gaze is so level and so unyielding, it stands as one of the better dramatic films made on this subject (although it's not nearly as fine as Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants," in which the camps remain a distant abstraction). Yet the title - reflecting a young German boy's misunderstanding of his friend on the other side of the barbed wire - is gratingly faux-naive, and the teddibly British accents sported by the film's Nazi family aren't ahistorical so much as silly. If you want to resist this movie - and some reviewers have, vocally - you're within your rights. Those who lower their guard may be astonished at the cold, calculated punch "Boy" packs.
First of all, the movie's not remotely for children, so get that idea out of your noggin right now. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" opens in Berlin as the German war machine moves confidently forward. Father (David Thewlis) has just been promoted to a high-ranking post in the country, which fills his flighty, clueless wife (Vera Farmiga) and adolescent daughter (Amber Beattie) with pride. Six-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) isn't so sure: He's leaving friends behind, and the new house is a grim castle. By standing on tiptoe, he can spy through his bedroom window at what appears to be a farm in the far distance. To his confusion, the farmers wear pajamas.
Under director Mark Herman's steady hand, the film observes the business of corporatized death from two removes: the dull daily life of the officer's household and Bruno's uncomprehending stare. He's a kid, so he explores where he's not supposed to, coming up against that fence and the boy behind it, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). They become friends while talking in wide circles around what they can't say or understand.
The film's conceit is that a 6-year-old boy is too fixated on the small details - the ants on the sidewalk - to see where they're marching. We, by contrast, are all too aware. This is the stuff of ghoulish directorial elbow-nudging, but "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" consistently underplays its hand. Even the score by James Horner, that thick-fingered maestro, is subtle, even beautiful in a way that only slowly turns obscene. The film's drama is mostly in the mother's face as it dawns on her what the stench from the smokestacks means and subsequently collapses from within.
As Bruno, Butterfield manages the tricky feat of acting uninformed - unformed, really - without seeming stupid. He wrestles with the frightening thought that his father may be an unworthy idol. In one horrific scene, Bruno betrays Shmuel to a Nazi officer (Rupert Friend); a few scenes later, the Jewish boy has already forgiven him. Both understand that grown-up cruelties can make friends behave in scared and shameful ways; both are too young to understand the larger history of which they're a part.
A lesser film would hammer the irony home, but "Boy" just lets it be, raising the stakes only in the climactic scenes. At first we wince at the new game the boys are playing, but then we see - even as they don't - the only way that game can end. Ironically, what saves "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" from kitsch is the cold, observant logic of Herman's storytelling. When it's over, and you're sitting in the dark unable to breathe, you may realize that the final moments were already present, in utero, in the film's very first frames. Never forget, says this movie, that a holocaust consumes everything.