‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’: The sins of the father

November 4, 2008

 

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” draws you in, strips your defenses – then hits you like a ton of bricks. It offers an unexpected perspective on the Holocaust, one that puts viewers off-balance, leaving them on very tough ground indeed.

 

Directed by Mark Herman, this is tragedy that never tips its hand. In its exploration of the conflict between innocence and evil – played out in a luxurious country house next door to a Nazi death camp – it finds goodness in a setting of unspeakable horror. It will pull you in and wring you out.

 

How rare is it to see a movie that leaves you arguing with yourself about what you’ve just seen? Not because you’re confused or dissatisfied, but because it plants conflicting notions in your mind and forces you to sort them out for yourself. I would venture that this film will spark more discussions and controversy than any movie since Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.”

 

The film centers on an 8-year-old boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), first seen playing with his friends. Harmless enough, right? Then you get the reveal: Bruno is, in fact, the son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) in World War II Berlin.

 

But Bruno’s idyllic childhood world is jolted by his father’s new job, which uproots the family and moves it to the country. They’ll be living in a lavish villa, far from the nearest town. Bruno and his older sister will be home-schooled by a tutor, who teaches racial pride (and prejudice) along with German history. And there are no children, it seems, for him to play with.

 

Still, from the window of his bedroom, he can see what he thinks is a farm in the distance – a farm where the workers all wear striped clothing, which Bruno assumes are pajamas. Bruno, of course, is too young to realize that his father’s new job is as commandant of a Nazi death camp.

 

And his mother (Vera Farmiga) is too naïve (at first) to recognize what her husband’s assignment is. When she catches on, she crumbles, as the awareness dawns of just what it is that she’s living next to – and with.

 

Bruno, however, is mostly mystified and curious. Why does his father’s adjutant, Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend), treat their servant, Pavel (David Hayman), so viciously? Why does Pavel seem so weak and frequently in pain, as he sweeps and cleans around the villa in his striped clothing? And what is going on at the farm?

 

Bruno finally sneaks out of the house through an unattended shed window. For him, it’s an adventure to wander through the woods to the electrified barbed wire fence. There he finds a boy his own age – Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) – huddling behind a stack of debris, away from the sight of the guards. Finally – someone his own age for Bruno to play with, or at least to talk to.

 

It’s a daring ploy: to examine the Holocaust through the eyes of a child too young to possibly guess or figure out what is going on. Even 60-plus years after the end of World War II, it’s hard for some to even imagine watching a movie that humanizes a single Nazi character.

 

Thewlis is not made sympathetic in any way. Yet he’s not a complete monster: just a man doing a job, following a philosophy that he’s bought into in order to advance his career. The film doesn’t excuse Nazism and its vicious anti-Semitism – but it still puts a human face on the people who bought into it.

 

Is this film contrived? Of course – but aren’t all films? Isn’t that the nature of plot – to be made up, contrived, in such a way to pull you into them?

 

An aura of dread rests on this film almost from the start. That mix – Nazis, a death camp and children – is a portentous one. You sit there in fear that this filmmaker will cross the line and show us something we know but don’t want to see: the violence against children (as though that is somehow more horrifying than the violence visited upon the rest of the 6 million dead at the Nazis hands in the camps).


What makes “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” so powerful and so provocative is its simplicity. It almost never varies from Bruno’s perspective; only in a few rare moments does it offer a glimpse of the mother or the father (or Pavel, the Jewish prisoner/servant).

 

Butterfield is a terrific child actor, one who can make his thoughts (most of them confused or childlike) visible on his face, without seeming to be an adult in a kid’s body. Children engage in reductive, rather than deductive, thinking and he seems to embody it.

 

There are no happy endings in Holocaust stories; even escape is tainted and overwhelmed by survivor guilt and the massiveness of the crime against humanity. So it is with “Striped Pajamas,” a movie whose ending will leave you limp. As inevitable as it seems, it still hits you like a punch in the gut – and yet inspires conflicting feelings as well.

 

Does that make this movie confused – or complex? I’d vote for the latter. The feelings it elicits may be confusing but the film itself is crystal-clear in its viewpoint.

 

 

 

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