As trendy as it is for filmmakers to take an alternate look at a story by portraying it through the eyes of the villains, you don’t see too many awarding that sympathetic angle to the Nazis.
There’s a good reason for that. When it comes to the Nazis, it’s hard to find much to be sympathetic about. Bring an eight-year-old in as the centerpiece of your story, and all that changes.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield, Son of Rambow) is a carefree child who loves to roam the streets of Berlin with his friends. He knows his father (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) is a Nazi commanding officer, but is oblivious to what that means. All he’s told is he should be proud of his father’s accomplishments. A new military assignment sends the family to the countryside where Bruno despairs of having any friends. His mother (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) confines him mostly to the house and the front driveway.
Bruno notices some odd things about this new home, like a farm several miles away where all the workers wear pajamas, and several tall smokestacks that belch out an unbearable smell. It’s obvious what’s going on here, and it soon becomes apparent that Bruno’s father is the one in charge of the nearby concentration camp. Bruno’s parents make every effort to dampen his curiosity about the “farm,” but Bruno is undeterred, and sneaks away to get a closer look.
What he finds is a tall, barbed-wire fence, and behind it is a boy his age with a funny name and funny clothes. “What kind of name is Shmuel?” and “Why are you wearing pajamas?” Bruno wonders.
Shmuel (newcomer Jack Scanlon) worries about being caught hiding in the corner of the camp where he escapes from his work and is wary of Bruno at first, but the two soon develop a friendship, despite being separated by a fence. Bruno travels to the camp as often as he can, bringing food to Shmuel, who gobbles it down hastily. Bruno thinks that’s funny. He’s still oblivious.
If The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a main flaw, it’s that the story is too often in the risky territory of becoming Holocaust drama lite. The Holocaust is probably the last historical event that should ever be trivialized, and while the film is never disrespectful, framing it from the perspective of an oblivious eight-year-old renders it kind of shallow and uninformed.
Still, the family drama is top notch, thanks especially to strong performances by Thewlis and Farmiga. The Nazis may not deserve any sympathy, but the emotional consequences of having the head of your household oversee the death of thousands of Jews would have to be troubling.
The performances of the two young actors Butterfield and Scanlon are impressive as well. There’s an honesty in their eyes, and a simple conviction in the way they deliver their lines. Nearly all of the emotional power of the film comes courtesy of these two.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas requires a bit of sustained disbelief (is it really possible a boy in a concentration camp could hide in a corner of the camp for hours at a time without being noticed?) and a willingness to put up with a dreadfully saccharine score considering the subject matter (thanks for another one, James Horner) but by the final reel, all that will be forgotten. As the last few scenes flash across the screen, and it fades to credits, you will be pinned to your seat. The ending is devastating. Don’t bring your mom to this one.