A decade ago, the Italian film “Life Is Beautiful” showed us a father who tried to protect his child’s innocence by pretending the Holocaust was just a game. We wept, and piled on the awards. Now along comes another picture about the Holocaust from the point-of-view of a child, but from the totally opposite perspective. Instead of a Jewish boy, it’s about a German boy; and instead of being about shutting one’s eyes to reality, it’s about opening them up.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” currently in theatres, begins at a party in Berlin. The party celebrates the promotion of a high-ranking Nazi officer (David Thewlis, best known as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), but the focus of our attention is his eight-year-old, wide-eyed son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield). Bruno and his twelve-year-old sister (Amber Beattie) appear lost in the large and unfriendly crowd of adults, but they soon flock to a familiar and friendly face, their grandmother (Sheila Hancock), who puts them at ease. When she makes a subtle comment indicating she doesn’t approve of her son’s career or the political direction Germany has taken, it is over the kids’ heads.
This is a great opening sequence which sets the tone well. Large sections of the film depict casual family life in the seemingly-innocent home that just happens to be headed by a Nazi officer. We only catch brief glimpses of the work he does, so the focus is on the banality of routine family life. Yet there is a growing dark undercurrent which threatens to undermine any pretensions to normalcy.
The father’s promotion as the new commandant of a concentration camp necessitates the family’s move from Berlin to an isolated commander’s house way out in the middle of nowhere, a half-mile from the camp. Needless to say Bruno is not happy about the move, but when it turns out that he can see a bit of the camp way off in the distance from an upstairs window, he begins asking questions about what he thinks is a farm and he wants to know why the farmers are wearing pajamas, as striped prison uniforms would naturally seem to an eight-year-old boy of limited experience.
Just like the father in “Life Is Beautiful,” Bruno’s father wants to protect his son from the harsh reality, so he tells him to ignore the “farm” and never go near it. But of course, curiosity gets the better of him, and Bruno sets off to find the “farm” to see if there are any children there he can play with.
When he finally gets to the camp, at a secluded, unguarded corner, he meets another eight-year-old boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), hiding out by the fence. Though separated by electrified barbed-wire, the two strike up a friendship, based on their common age and gender; yet despite what he sees, Bruno cannot grasp the situation.
He has a psychological problem—despite the evidence of his eyes, the camp does not make sense to him, so Bruno continues to convince himself that it is a farm. When he asks Shmuel to tell him about the game they play for which they have numbers on their “pajamas,” Shmuel tells him that there is no game. Yet because Bruno cannot imagine any other reason to put numbers on pajamas, the next time he seem Shmuel, Bruno once more asks him to tell him about the game. (Again, this is the opposite of “Life Is Beautiful” in which the father goes to great lengths to convince his son that it is a game.)
Neither can Bruno understand Pavel, the prisoner who is working in his family’s kitchen. Pavel used to be a doctor, but Bruno can’t understand why someone who was a doctor would choose to peel potatoes.
Furthermore, Bruno is having trouble rationalizing what he’s taught by his tutor, that all Jews are evil vermin, with what he knows about Shmuel. He somehow intuits that something doesn’t quite make sense, but his eight-year-old brain isn’t developed enough to figure it out.
Shmuel seems to have a better grasp of reality, since after all, he lives inside the camp. But even he cannot understand the enormity of his situation. He doesn’t know what’s being burned inside that crematorium, neither does he suspect what has happened to his father, who has disappeared.
Even more tragic than the psychological problems Bruno faces, are the moral ones. His eight-year-old mind is incapable of grappling with the moral issues that he is confronted with. And yet somehow, slowly, his moral consciousness is awakening, he begins to make judgments about right and wrong, and wonders what he can do about them. At one point he makes a decision that can be said to almost be on par with Huckleberry Finn’s famous commitment, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!”
This leads, of course, to the ultimate tragic conclusion. It’s a bit predictable, and some other details of the movie are rather improbable, but still it makes a good point. There are some important lessons for us, today, as we see that one reaps what one sows. Oppression often has unintended consequences for the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
The acting in this movie is excellent. David Thewlis is chilling in his banality as the seemingly-loving father whose day job is overseeing the extermination of the Jewish race. Vera Farmiga is Bruno’s conflicted mother who at first believes in the good of the Fatherland but doubts more and more as facts come to light. Also of particular note is Rupert Friend who plays a lieutenant; he seems to be a typical nasty Nazi, yet when it is discovered that his father is not as loyal as he, he begins to lose control.
The star of the show, of course, is Asa Butterfield who plays Bruno. This young actor has managed to capture a sense of wonder as well as a budding consciousness. I think we can expect to see more of him in the future.
The music by James Horner is haunting. And the cinematography, at the beginning and end of the picture, stands out; although during the middle of the film it’s relatively unremarkable.
The Holocaust is a difficult subject to deal with on film, and even more difficult to present through the eyes of a child. But director Mark Herman pulls it off quite well. Seeing it through the eyes of the son of a Nazi is a unique perspective. There’s something to be said for that.
Perhaps sometimes we all need to look at the tragedies of our world through less jaded eyes.