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Movie Reviews

Boy In The Striped Pajamas



Released: September 12th 2008 (UK)

Director: Mark Herman

Stars: Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis

Certificate: 12a(UK)

Reviewer: Anne Iredale

It’s a brave director that takes on the subject of the Holocaust. The spellbinding quality of this film is due to the story unfolding through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. We first encounter Bruno in Berlin where he has a comfortable life with his parents and older sister, Gretel. When it is time to move to the country because of his father’s promotion, he doesn’t want to leave his friends.

Bruno tries to settle into his new home but he has no one to play with and he’s restricted as to where he is allowed to go in the grounds. This is no rural idyll, as his father, Ralf (David Thewlis) is SS Commandant over an extermination camp. We see him as an amiable man with a good relationship with his son. Meanwhile, Bruno is puzzled by what he sees in the distance outside his bedroom window. He makes sense of it by assuming the buildings he sees are a farm but why do the people there always wear pyjamas?

Rebelling against his mother’s instructions, Bruno decides to explore and he comes to the perimeter fence of the camp. There, he meets a boy named Shmuel, aged the same as him, with a shaved head and dressed in the “pyjamas”. Sitting unnoticed on the other side of the fence, away from the guards, Shmuel strikes up a friendship with Bruno and the two meet secretly every day. Gradually, Bruno realizes the reality of the situation and that his friend is a prisoner.

The story’s strength is in the confusion of a young boy, bewildered by the contradictions of the adult world. Bruno has sneaked a view of a propaganda film about the camps, portraying them as happy-go-lucky work camps and he clings to this apparent evidence of his father’s goodness. He struggles with the idea that his father could be anything but a good man. His tutor, who gives lessons to himself and his sister in the house, spews anti-Jewish dogma and one of his father’s soldiers is cruel to Pavel, the Jewish servant assigned to the family. The only Jewish people Bruno has met are Shmuel and Pavel and they have both shown him nothing but friendship, patience and kindness.

It seems churlish to criticise but there are matters of credulity. Would Shmuel be given so much leeway as to be able to spend so much time with Bruno at the fence? Also, is it believable that Bruno’s mother, Elsa doesn’t know until later, the true nature of the camp? But these are minor concerns.

Not to give the ending away, but obviously tragedy is inevitable. The final scenes are not overly sentimental nor are they clumsy. The events are delicately handled and the director retains the human dignity of people caught up in the most appalling circumstances imaginable. The fact that Ralf does not appear as a monster on the surface makes these events all the more sinister. We see a family man in his ordinary domestic surroundings with the smell of his workplace in the air.

The propaganda film that Bruno sees mentions a café in the camp that is filmed, where the “workers” can go. This provides the most heartbreaking line in the film when Bruno asks Shmuel, “where is the café?” and a surprised Shmuel has to tell him that there is no café here. In this, the darkest of places, based on Auschwitz, a child’s innocence is destroyed.

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