Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Director: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, David Thewliss, David Heyman, Jack Scanlon, Richard Johnson.
Distributor: Madman Films 
Runtime: 94 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes.

This is a children’s film, in the sense that it is about small children (as well as adults) and much of it is directed towards small children (age eight and upwards). This does not mean that it is an easy or delightful entertainment for an outing. Rather, this is a message film, a strong message through a story and characters that they can understand, whom they will feel with. It would be good for parents and children to see this film together. It is also one of those films which would be helpful in a school or discussion situation.

It is a Holocaust film.

The Holocaust took place over sixty years ago but it is a 20th century event that should never be forgotten. This was in the mind of the novelist who wrote the story, Irishman John Boyne (born in 1971). For him, the internment and extermination of millions of Jews was something that happened a long time ago. He wrote the story to remind his readers of the horrors so that this should not happen again. This is the intention of the film-makers, especially the writer-director, Mark Herman (who also made Brassed Off and Little Voice).

It seems important to remember that the story is one that is seen from an 8 year old’s point of view. He does not understand what is going on. He thinks that the camp that he can see from his window is a farm and the farmers wear strange clothes, like pyjamas. We see the camp from his limited point of view and, to that extent, the ‘realistic’ details can be criticised as ‘unrealistic’. Adults looking at the film, especially the reconstruction of the camp without too many watchtowers and parts of the fences left unguarded, may be dissatisfied. But that is not the point. This is a fable for children about friendship and the ugliness of cruel power and prejudice.

The little boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), is the son of the camp commandant (David Thewliss quietly menacing). The family has moved from Berlin to the camp, to a big house beyond the fences and the boy is lonely without his friends. There is a strange servant in the house, also wearing pyjamas, who is kind to him, a doctor who now peels potatoes and works the garden. Bruno cannot understand why Pavel (David Heyman, the producer of the film) has given up being a doctor for this.

Bruno loves exploring. Which brings him, without his parents knowing, to the camp fence where he sees Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an 8 year old internee. Bruno asks all kinds of questions about Shmuel and the camp, innocent even naïve questions. Friendship blossoms but, at one crucial point, where Shmuel is working in the house, Bruno denies that he knows Shmuel and accuses him of stealing the food that Bruno had secretly given him. The boys have to work through this betrayal to forgiveness and some atonement.

Vera Farmiga portrays the children’s mother – Bruno has a 12 year old sister who embraces the Nazi ideology unquestioningly. The mother thinks that the camp is just a labour camp but is puzzled by the smoke and smell from the chimneys. The adjutant makes a casual remark about the furnaces and what they are really for. This creates a dilemma for the mother and her relationship with her husband (whose father, Richard Johnson, supports his son’s necessary work but whose mother, Sheila Hancock, strongly disapproves).

The dialogue does not downplay the bigotry, the arrogance and the ignorance of the Nazi beliefs and aims. The children’s father and their tutor mouthe the prejudices without a second thought. The tutor remarks, ironically, that the greatest exploration would be to discover a good Jew. That becomes something of Bruno’s goal. Together with Shmuel, he tries to achieve it.

A warning that the ending is not what audiences will expect and is quite disturbing and may need parents’ and teachers’ help and explanations for some children to deal with it.

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