Most Holocaust movies I’ve seen focus on adults who are involved in some way, either as members of the SS guards, as part of a group devoted to protecting the Jews, or as victims of the genocide. I’ve never seen anything told from a child’s point of view, which is why I was intrigued by the premise of a 2008 film called The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Unfortunately, while the movie was very good in some parts, I thought it was highly unrealistic in many others — including the ending, which I didn’t like at all.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film is told from the point of view of Bruno (played by Asa Butterfield), an 8-year-old boy whose father Ralf (David Thewlis) is an important officer in the SS Guards during the height of World War II. Ralf has just been promoted, and the new position requires that the family move from their Berlin home to a house way out in the country. Bruno doesn’t want to go because he’ll miss his friends, but his mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) and older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) promise him that everything will be ok.
But Bruno is dismayed to find that the new house is almost completely isolated. There are no other homes near theirs, nor do there appear to be any other children around. In fact, the only signs of civilization that Bruno can see are the other SS officers who constantly come and go for meetings with Ralf, and a distant “farm” visible from his bedroom window. Bruno notices people out on the farm and asks his mother if he can go out there to play. Elsa is puzzled by what Bruno means, as she didn’t think there were any farms around. At any rate, she forbids him to leave the yard.
Being just 8, Bruno is of course easily bored, and soon finds a way to escape undetected from the yard. He goes exploring and eventually winds up at the farm, which viewers can readily identify as a concentration camp. There he meets a boy his own age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who is dressed in what looks to Bruno like striped pajamas, but which viewers instantly recognize as prison garb. Moreover, Shmuel is confined to camp grounds behind a barbed wire fence, another detail that Bruno can’t understand.
Despite these obstacles, the boys strike up a tentative friendship, with Bruno bringing Shmuel food and devising games for them to play even with the fence dividing them. The rest of the film follows this blossoming friendship as it takes a few twists and turns before the unexpected ending when Bruno’s actions have dire consequences.
My Reaction: This film was a bit too uneven for my tastes. On the one hand, I realize that everything was told from the point of view of an 8-year-old, but on the other hand some of Bruno’s actions still bothered me to no end and had me wondering if kids that age really are as clueless as he seemed to be. For instance, I found it strange that Bruno was savvy enough to sneak away from his house and go to the concentration camp, and intuitive enough to know to hide Shmuel’s food from his parents, yet naive enough not to know that Shmuel was in some kind of prison? Granted, Bruno might not have known what a concentration camp was, but surely he didn’t really think that Shmuel was wearing pajamas, right?
I do have to say that I appreciate the fact that the screenplay didn’t go for an easy cliché of an ending. I fully expected that Bruno would somehow smuggle Shmuel out of the camp and become lifelong friends or that he would end up saving the boy in some other way. I certainly did not expect that Bruno would join Shmuel in the camp and meet his death that way — which is not to say that I liked this particular ending, as I found it rather far-fetched. But it was better than going for happily-ever-after.
Overall, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was more disappointing than not. I think there was a chance to tell an emotionally-charged, touching story here, but the whole thing just fell flat in the end. I give it 2 stars out of 5.