The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Director : Mark Herman
Screenplay : Mark Herman (based on the novel by John Boyne)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Asa Butterfield (Bruno), David Thewlis (Father), Vera Farmiga (Mother), Rupert Friend (Lt. Kotler), David Hayman (Pavel), Jack Scanlon (Shmuel), Amber Beattie (Gretel), Sheila Hancock (Grandma), Richard Johnson (Grandpa), Jim Norton (Herr Liszt), Cara Horgan (Maria)
Based on the acclaimed young adult novel of the same title by Irishman John Boyne, Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas gives us a child’s eye view of unimaginable evil, which makes said evil all the more grotesque. What is most unnerving about the film is the way in which it allows its young protagonist to discover for himself and on his own terms the reality of what is happening in the world around him, which is all the more unsettling given that we in the audience already know. It is, in a sense, a tragedy about finally becoming self-aware, with a child being forced to suddenly navigate the choppy waters of the worst crime of the 20th century.
The story opens in Berlin in the early 1940s, where we meet Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a privileged 8-year-old whose father (David Thewlis) is an official in the Nazi party. Bruno doesn’t really understand what Nazis are or why his country is at war with the rest of the world, and he also doesn’t understand why he and his family suddenly have to leave their stately home and move out to the country, except that it somehow involves his father getting a new job. His mother (Vera Farmiga) tells him they are moving to a farm, but Bruno is not allowed outside the gated walls of the cold, modernist structure in which they now live. He is particularly forbidden from going into the “garden” behind the house. From his bedroom window he can see what appear to be farm workers in the distance, all of whom are curiously dressed in what look like striped pajamas.
Desiring to be an explorer, Bruno cannot be contained, and he eventually sneaks out the backside of their property, traverses a small forest, and finds himself in front of a barbed wire fence, behind which he sees the pajama-clad people. He soon befriends a fellow eight-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who resides on the other side of the fence. Bruno thinks that Shmuel lives on a farm and that the number he wears on his pajamas is part of a game, although Shmuel’s dirty, haggard appearance suggests that his life is anything by fun and games. Bruno’s gradual awareness of the reality behind the “farm” is necessarily incomplete, as he is too young and naïve to fathom the kinds of evil that are taking place. For that matter, so is Shmuel, even though he endures it day after day, which is the link that binds the two children despite the admonition by Bruno’s stern tutor that they should be “enemies.”
Director Mark Herman, who has until now made mostly comedies, draws excellent performances from his two young actors, who embody an almost magical sense of childhood that deepens, rather than conflicts with, the stark historical realities in which they are living. With his piercing blue eyes and round face, Asa Butterfield is the very face of privilege even if he doesn’t know it, while Jack Scanlon’s slightly off-kilter features (he’s missing his front teeth and his ears and his cheeks seem much too big) makes him almost otherworldly. Even though their scenes together are brief (as is the film as a whole), they generate the kind of chemistry that makes Bruno’s actions in the film’s final 15 minutes wholly believable.
Herman is also quite adept at depicting in sharply concise terms the nature of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” in the bureaucratic machinations and justifications needed to perpetuate genocide and the divisions that cracked families and loved ones apart along the fissure line of adherence to Nazi ideology. As it turns out, Bruno is not the only one who is unaware, as his mother, in one of the film’s most cutting scenes, accidentally discovers the truth of what her husband is overseeing out in the country and is horrified. Similar attention is paid to the fact that the father’s parents are split over his role in the Nazi party, with his mother (Sheila Hancock) refusing to come to dinner while his father (Richard Johnson) proudly sits by his son’s side and lectures his grandson about the importance of “history in the making.” As the father, David Thewlis walks an impressive tightrope, depicting a man of sternness and duty who justifies what he is doing with all the appropriate terms, but still feels unsettled.
Of course, any film that deals with the Holocaust is always on shaky terrain because, as Claude Lanzmann, the director of the eight-hour documentary Shoah (1985) argued, the Holocaust is beyond representation because it erects “a ring of fire around itself.” In some sense, Lanzmann is right because no single film or group of films or even the entirety of cinema history could ever fully represent the horrors of that time, and it is difficult not to see the manner in which The Boy in the Striped Pajamas cherishes ideals of childhood innocence, not to mention a fanciful story that falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny, as a kind of defense mechanism against the horrors at the story’s core. Yet, it is in trying to make sense of such events through narrative, allegorical or otherwise, that we give ourselves the chance of understanding that which seems beyond the pale, to grapple with the idea of true monstrosity.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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