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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

A movie directed by Mark Herman

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  • Apr 15, 2009
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(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: With more the feel of a fable than of a genuine piece of history, this film tells the story of Bruno, the loving son of a father who was running an extermination camp for the Nazis. With a child's innocence he does not understand what the camp is and, he makes friends with an interned boy. If the film is a fable, it is a powerful one. Mark Herman directs from his own screenplay based on the novel by John Boyne. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10 

When the TV miniseries THE HOLOCAUST was made, Michael Moriarty was playing a scene as a concentration camp commandant home for Christmas. He says that the scene made him just break down and cry. How can a father in that position look his family in the eye and celebrate the holiday knowing he is a mass murderer? It is rare that a film looks at the effects of the Holocaust on the perpetrators rather than the victims. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a powerful look at the same sort of family. Father (played by the reliable David Thewlis) has just been promoted to the responsibility of running a death camp. He takes his family from Berlin to the unidentified village where the camp has been located. But though the two characters of Father and Mother (Vera Farmiga) are well defined, the center of the film is eight-year-old Bruno (a remarkable Asa Butterfield, actually eleven years old). At first bored with his new home, he finds ways to sneak out the back garden and go to the fence where he meets and makes friends with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who Bruno thinks has a fun life on what he thinks is a farm were people wear pajamas all day. Veteran actor Richard Johnson plays Father's father and is probably the source of Father's character flaws. 

There are some problems with the narrative. Bruno never realizes what a death camp really is. Of course, few of the audience members are not far, far ahead of Bruno, though perhaps nobody who did not go through the experience can really know. But the film is not about what is happening beyond the fence, but how Bruno's many misimpressions are slowly corrected. Even the suffering Shmuel from whom Bruno learns knows little more than Bruno does. Also, somewhat unrealistically, I think three people very close to Father make very clear that they do not approve of Father's career in spite of the prestige and success it brings him. It is very unlikely to have so many open dissenters in the same family as the camp commander. Multiple characters make quite a point in the film how bad the chimney smoke from the camp smells. But the production of this smoke seems be a rare event, and that really does not make sense. Also why does Shmuel have so much time to sit by the fence? Like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, this film seems to soften the Holocaust in order to tell a story that probably could not have happened in the real world. 

It has become a convention of the syntax of cinema to have an accent substitute for speaking in a foreign language. The obvious choice would be to either have the actors speak German, or with a German accent. Instead an English accent was chosen, natural to the English actors of the film. The colors when Bruno first comes to his new home are bright and vibrant. As the film progresses those bright colors seems to drain out of the film. The colors become much more muted. 

James Horner, at one time disdained by film music aficionados, gives the film a lovely melodic score with a little foreshadowing and also a feeling of innocence at times. Scores of this quality have become infrequent. Texture music scores with little or no melody have become the rule. It is nice to have melody back. 

The film starts slowly and telling it tale very deliberately. By the end of the film it is moving at a breathless pace. But the film has a feel of insulating the viewer from the hard realities of life in the camps. We are told that Shmuel is hungry, but we see nobody who looks like he has been missing meals. The novel was written for young adults and the film feels like it pulls its punches. The final horrifying revelation is still a long way from the painful realities of those days. I rate THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. 

Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0914798/ 

What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/boy_in_the_striped_pajamas/ 
  Mark R. Leeper
  Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper

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April 16, 2009
Really stellar review, Mark! I've been trying to decide if this is worth watching, but you've intrigued me. Thanks!
More The Boy in the Striped Pajamas reviews
review by . March 17, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
This is the saddest movie you're likely to see ever, not so much for the wrenching intimate tragedy it portrays but for the historical reality that it epitomizes. Could you possibly make sense of this film if you knew nothing at all about the mass murder of Jews in Hitler's Germany and the lands that Germany occupied? I don't think so! Fortunately, there are few people that ignorant of history alive right now, although there are a vicious few who deny it. Clearly, this is a film not just about two …
review by . March 15, 2009
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a 'compleat' motion picture: even the title states the vision of the film in a subtly powerful way. Based on the excellent novel by John Boyne and adapted for the screen by director Mark Herman, this film has the courage to re-visit the Holocaust from the child's perspective. Not that it covers up the atrocities of that horrid event and time - quite the opposite: in electing to examine that period in history the stance is that of two children, one German son of …
review by . March 01, 2009
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"    Disturbing Yet Brilliant    Amos Lassen    There seems to be a lot of films about the Holocaust coming out of late and some of them seem to be cashing in on the darkest period in the history of the world. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" rises above them all and shows us what so many others don't. It is a shocking film--not in physical violence but in inferred inhumanity. This is a movie that will give …
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The innocence of childhood savagely collides with the Holocaust inThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) knows that his father is a soldier and that they have to move to a new house in the country... a house near what he thinks is a farm. But his father isn't just a soldier; he's a high-ranking officer in Hitler's elite SS troops who's just been placed in command of Auschwitz. As Bruno explores the woods around the house, he discovers the concentration camp's perimeter fence. On the other side sits a boy his own age, with whom Bruno strikes up a friendship--a friendship that will have tragic consequences.The Boy in the Striped Pajamasis most powerful in the details: The casual brutality of a Nazi lieutenant; the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the family's domestic life with glimpses of the treatment of the imprisoned Jews; a ghastly propaganda film suggesting that life at Auschwitz was like a holiday. But more than anything else, Butterfield's performance makes this film compelling. The young actor perfectly conveys Bruno's limited perspective even as the film carefully unveils the larger, darker reality. The movie's ending will undoubtedly spark arguments, but only because of the emotional complexity of what happens--The Boy in the Striped Pajamasis made with great skill and compassion. Also featuring David Thewlis (Naked) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as Bruno's parents.--Bret Fetzer
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Director: Mark Herman
Genre: Drama, Foreign, Thriller, War
Release Date: 28 November 2008 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: Mark Herman, John Boyne
DVD Release Date: March 10, 2009
Runtime: 94 min
Studio: Miramax Films
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