The Boy In The Striped Pajamas
Some topics are such that they cannot help but to touch the hearts of those who listen to them. Film makers have understood this for ages and many have capitalized on the fact to create movies that have great emotional depth. Two of the themes that have proven to be the most powerful in this regard are those about a poor child forced to over come insurmountable odds. Another is one of the greatest human tragedies in history the Holocaust. When you combine the two there is a potential for a great tale of human resiliency and the triumph of the human spirit. Such a film is ‘The Boy In The Striped Pajamas’. This is the kind of movie that shows that even in the midst of the darkest chapter in history there can be hope. There are still those that refute that the Holocaust ever existed. Perhaps it was just too large a horror for them to get their minds around. I have had the honor of meeting several people who have survived this inhuman time. What struck me most was the way they embraced life finding joy in the smallest of things. They didn’t speak a lot about the atrocities that they endured. Instead they related stories of how they helped each other to survive and the close bonds of friendship that emerged from their ordeal. If you have ever seen a flower growing between the cracks in the sidewalk you have a visual representation of how they got through this time. Life will find a way to prosper even under the most brutal environment. All of this went through my mind as I sat there watching this film. When you hear that it is about a little boy in a concentration camp you might thing that it has to be depressing. It isn’t. This is a movie dedicate to those that lived and died in those terrible camps. It is a story of optimism; the kind that can only come out of the worse time imaginable. The film was distributed by the independent film branch of Walt Disney Studios; Miramax. While Disney is well known for family entertainment and this movie has a PG-13 rating parents should make it a point to delay letting the youngest members of your family watch it. They will not understand and should be allowed to keep their age of innocence before having to have the conversation that would be required after this film. For older children make sure you sit with them. This film needs to be fully discussed as a family after watching it. It is vital that the next generation knows about this darkest chapter of human history. The film is now available on DVD and along with the extras it is one that deserves to be watched and receive a spot on your shelves.
The film is based on the best selling novel of the same name by John Boyne. Assuming the difficult task of transferring this story from the page to the big screen fell to Mark Herman as well as the task of directing it. This had to be a big change of pace for Herman since his previous works had all been comedies of one sort or another. Perhaps this helped though. It gave him the eyes to not specifically focus on the tragedy which kept the movie from being a dry history lesson. At the center of the story are two eight year old boys; Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Bruno is the son of a high placed Nazi while Shmuel is Jewish boy behind the barbed wire that demarks the nearby concentration camp. As far as Bruno can understand his new friend wears stripped pajamas; the meager uniform assigned to prisoners. The considerable heart of this story is a coming of age drama. At eight years of age these boys are on the cusp of leaving childhood behind. They are in the middle of a world war but that is something that the grownups talk about and has never really intruded in their young lives. That is until Shmuel and his family were taken into custody just because they were Jews. As the story progresses each of the boys is forced to come to grips with the reality of their circumstances. There is little difference about them yet one is free and the other is trapped in the camp. All rational people would be quick to denounce war; it is brutal, violent and destroys lives in a myriad of ways. As parents we try our best to keep these harsh realities from our children but there comes a time when they have to see what the world is really like. In this film we witness the loss of innocence as Bruno and Shmuel discover the harsh realities of the conflict around them.
In directing this movie Herman has a sense of style that is amazing to watch. He contrasts the boys in a gentle way we watch as the friendship grows between them; just two boys in worlds were there are not a lot of people their age. Then reality begins to set in. Bruno comes to understand why Shmuel is in those pajamas and behind the wire. The young boy hears that people are being killed en masse in the stark buildings that the wire surrounds. This slams home to his young mind when he begins to realize that his father Ralf (David Thewlis) is the commander of the facility. He had thought that his father got a nice promotion that enabled his family to move to a nice home in the country. When the boys meet Shmuel is hungry. Bruno begins to bring him food and they play checkers together. Herman juxtaposes normal childhood scenes like this with the conditions of the camp and the indoctrination of Bruno. He and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) are provided a State sanctioned tutor Herr Liszt (Jim Norton) who teaches them using anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda as the basis of their education. Bruno also begins to notice how poorly an elderly Jew in the employ of his parents is treated. Life is confusing enough at this age but Bruno and Shmuel are forced to grow up too fast.
The ending of this film is brutal in its reality. It is also one of the things that will require parental guidance. This is an important film to watch and understand but at times it is difficult to watch. We all know that a story like this cannot have a traditional Hollywood happy ending and the fact is it shouldn’t. Ultimately the film presents the story with taste and style but the message is never sacrificed. The film is presented on DVD in anamorphic 1.85:1 video with Dolby 5.1 audio. Both are done exceptionally well. There is a commentary track by Herman and Boyne. They detail the problems in making a film of such a difficult topic especially one requiring children in the cast. This is expanded greatly with a making of featurette that heightens the importance of the film. There are also a set of deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary. It is best to keep that track on and let Herman explain why the scene was filmed and finally rejected from the theatrical cut.