2008 was a very big year for films adapted from books, with several reaching the high acclaim of Academy Award nominations. One adapted film that didn't get much recognition, however, is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the novel by John Boyne.
The film opens with the following quote emblazoned on the screen: "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows." As the quote suggests, this is a sort of coming of age film, and over the course of 94 minutes,those in the audience slowly watch the innocence of children unravel before their eyes as the reality of what is taking place becomes more and more illuminated.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the story of a family living in Berlin during World War II. The main character, an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield), spends his time in Berlin playing with his friends and reading adventure novels. His father, brilliantly played by David Thewlis (most will recognize him as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter franchise), soon gets a promotion, however, and Bruno, his parents, and his sister move to the German countryside where his father will take up his new position. Unlike their time in Berlin, Bruno's parents are careful to keep their son close to home, and Bruno, an explorer and adventurer at heart, is confined to the small fenced area surrounding their house.
From his bedroom window, Bruno can see what he thinks is a strange farm off in the distance. He notices that the "farmers" act strangely and wear strange "pajamas" while they work. Later, he notices that the smokestacks on the farm give off an absolutely wretched stench when they are burning. By now, of course, the audience knows that what Bruno has seen is not a farm at all, and that his father's new position is Commandant of the nearby concentration camp.
The naive Bruno manages to escape from the grounds of his home and is finally free to explore the woods behind the house. Not paying much attention to where he is going, he happens upon a remote part of the camp where he meets another eight-year-old boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), confined by a different kind of fence. The two become friends, and Bruno sneaks away every chance he gets to go and visit the only playmate he has found since moving away from Berlin.
This is an interesting film on many accounts, the most fascinating being the changes that each member of Bruno's family undergoes. His father, a seemingly reluctant, "political only" Nazi at the beginning, devolves into a hardened, harsh man. Bruno's sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), encouraged by a handsome lieutenant working with her father, falls victim to the Aryan propaganda so much that her room is soon filled with posters of the Fuhrer, much like young girls today would adorn their walls with images of the Jonas Brothers. Finally, there's Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga), who is the antithesis to the growing Nazism in her family. At first she is happy for her husband and the success he has as a soldier in the German army. However, as she learns more about her husband's new charge, and the truth is revealed about the camp, she becomes bitter and angry.
And then there's Bruno. All the signs are there. Bruno comes across every hint he possibly could as to the truth behind the "farm" where his friend Shmuel lives and works. Yet he remains utterly oblivious. Caught between the two stages of "sounds and smells and sights" and "the dark hour of reason," the filmmakers show the great price of failing to deal with the world around us.
Much of the criticism that I've read regarding this film deals with the supposed overextension of innocence to both child characters. Many critics cannot grasp the idea of an eight-year-old child not understanding that the "farm" is really a horrible work camp, that the "pajamas" are prison clothes, that the mysterious disappearances that Shmuel tells of and the smoke from the chimneys are the results of the systematic slaughter of the camp's inhabitants. That may be a fair criticism, but I think it misses the greater point that the filmmakers seem to be making.
Bigger than a child's loss of innocence, Bruno seems to be a representation of Germany, perhaps even humanity, itself, and the failure to deal with the evil right before one's very eyes. So many Germans claimed the innocence that we see in Bruno, saying they had no knowledge of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem that Hitler and his SS were carrying out across the European continent. Even today, despite all the existing evidence, there are still those that deny the Holocaust happened, not wanting to acknowledge the great evil of which humanity, perhaps even their neighbors and family members, is capable. More than anything else, this film shows the great price humanity pays for such utter naivete.
All in all, this is a very well done film. The story, though slow in the beginning, is engaging, thought-provoking, and, in the end, heart-wrenching. It is well-acted, especially in the performances of the young boys, and the bright colors and airy score provide a sort of bizarre juxtaposition to what is happening on screen.
The DVD includes the typical bonus features of deleted scenes and a feature-length commentary, as well as a featurette entitled "Friendship Beyond the Fence."Powered by Sidelines