Boyhood innocence, evil combine for powerful punch

The film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is effective not because it informs us about anything new,

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” will affect you in many different ways. Its effect depends on your artistic sensibilities, your resistance to melodrama, your emotional connection to the Holocaust, and perhaps your ideas about God and the deity’s consent to the torture and suffering of innocents.

Many viewers will balk at what they see as mawkish manipulation; they will argue that Mark Herman’s drama constitutes a blatant attempt at cheap exploitation.

I allow these objections, but court is not dismissed.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” got to me, not because it informs us about anything new, but because while delivering its emotional narrative, it leads us into new places, reminding us once more of the banality of evil. I must also add that working from a novel by John Boyne, Herman does his very best not to play on our emotions in an unfair way.

’The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Mark Herman, based on novel by John Boyne

STARRING Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Jack Scanlon, David Hayman and Rupert Friend.


RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

The tale begins when a Nazi commandant (David Thewlis) is assigned a new command. He could be any officer in any army, accepting his duty, which in this case is overseeing the operation of a concentration camp. It is a call to duty, and for his children, quite an inconvenience, what with leaving friends, packing belongings.

Undramatic setting

As rendered here, there are no militaristic speeches, little propaganda, and when we meet his son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), he could be any one of us — a kid looking for something to do in the middle of the countryside. With him is his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), older and more consumed by the romantic glory; her room is adorned with posters, but for Bruno, he wants to play.

Gradually, we are brought closer to the action, for soon Bruno will meet Shmuel, played by Jack Scanlon. He is the Jewish child, the title character who is a prisoner at the concentration camp, although as we will see, there is one more victim we meet as well. Here, we learn nothing new, other than what we already know: Left alone to play without the shackles of prejudice, kids will be kids, kicking balls around, making idle conversations, wondering why one kid has to dress differently. And we wonder what will happen, what the movie is leading up to.

I can tell you that you may gasp out loud before the film ends, but the movie is about much more than what is packed into one scene. To consider the film’s full scope of power, we need to return to the original setting and the delineation of character and incident. There is the mother (Vera Farmiga), who has no idea the husband is taking her so close to the seat of evil in the bucolic environment where we gradually spy wisps of gray smoke.

We learn that back home, the commandant’s mother objects to her heroic son’s patriotic adventure. We encounter another soldier proud of his Aryan lineage, eager to serve until some of his impurities are discovered, and of his reaction after. Bruno will witness the harsh displays of sudden temperamental bursts from minions working for his father, and through it all, we discern the beginnings of filial and marital disillusionment.

(May I digress for a moment to suggest we also have an occasion to hope for a movie with more profound interest, and that is the effect on German children who know that in the war their parents did shameful things.)

It is all one sliver of a catastrophe delivered here in muted, carefully observant strokes of blue and gray. Debates will rage on about the manner in which the film’s impact affects our emotions, but I must counter that even if we are conscious of manipulation (the cornerstone of all narrative art), “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” resonates with a quiet force on consequence.

Worthwhile entry

It may not be in the class of Louis Malle’s more accomplished and sobering “Au Revoir Les Enfants” or contain the tragically whimsical elements of “Life is Beautiful,” but “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” has its place in the pantheon of movies about innocents and what we do to them in the course of what we consider normal human activity.

The drama comes to us almost as a bedside story, and because it captures boyhood innocence with almost nonchalant reserve, I am tempted to recommend it for older children. But I cannot do this without warning you that “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” can also leave impressions that children can associate with nightmares.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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