The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
United Kingdom, 2008
Directed By: Mark Herman
Written By: Mark Herman, from the book by John Boyne
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Amber Beattie, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga
Running Time: 95 min.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material involving the Holocaust
3 out of 5 stars
Making a World War II-themed film is a prospect fraught with peril, in no small part because filmmakers have been churning them out since the moment World War II began. It’s hard to imagine that there’s really that much left to say about the conflict, and while the occasional film (Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful come to mind) proves me wrong in this respect, most ultimately fail.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the war is one of the few moments in history that is seen by most in stark shades of black and white. The Holocaust, along with other atrocities committed by the Axis powers, was a purely evil thing, and regardless of whatever failings can be ascribed to the Allies, it’s hard not to love them for putting an end to it. In other words, it’s not a very nuanced time of history, unless you’re ready to say that mass genocide can sometimes be justified (and five bucks says you’re not).

Such clearly defined good guys and bad guys should, I think, illustrate why the war is so popular a subject for films, but so difficult a subject to make a great film about.  “One-note” and “overdone” is not a good combination (as any quick listen to your local “Pure Rock” radio station will prove), but of course, filmmakers keep trying.  The latest entry, Mark Herman’s The Boy in Striped Pajamas tries to shake things up a bit by telling its story from the perspective of the family of a German soldier—and specifically his eight-year-old son Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who unknowingly befriends a Jewish boy interned at the concentration camp his father is charged with running. It’s a valiant effort, but ultimately one that fails to impress, primarily because it can’t think of anything new to say. The result is a beautiful piece of art that’s disappointingly hollow.
The failure here isn’t a problem with the filmmaking. Every shot in the film gorgeous and meaningful (the stark, gray, art deco house into which the family moves in Poland; the mass grave of dolls Bruno’s sister creates in the cellar when she decides to “grow up”); the characters all put in solid, believable performances; the dialogue is all spot-on (Bruno’s character treads just the right line between naïveté and denial). The trouble is the story, which hits all the notes you expect it to, and nothing more. Herman works hard to make the family sympathetic, but he ultimately can’t side with them since they’re perpetrators of—or at least accessories to—the Final Solution. Ultimately, everyone in the family must learn they were wrong and pay for their mistakes.

From the moment Bruno first discovers the internment camp (which he calls “a farm run by people in striped pajamas”), the film runs out of surprises and becomes a slow, sad march toward the inevitable tragic end.
In this sense, the deck was really stacked against the film in the first place. The simple story, which worked well as an allegory in the novel on which the film is based, becomes a bit too real on screen, and the viewer keeps waiting for something surprising to happen. Nothing does. The friendship between Bruno and Shmuel continues its uneasy growth, Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) finds out what her husband is up to and is appropriately horrified, Bruno’s sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) hangs pictures of Hitler on her walls to impress the soldier she’s crushing on. The devastating end feels far too contrived on screen, and it feels like the movie is beating you over the head with THE MORAL (“Genocide is bad!!!”).
Of course, it’s not that we disagree.  One of the major lessons of the Second World War is that genocide is an ugly, terrible thing that should be stopped at any cost.  This is an important lesson, and I hope we never forget it.  The real question, though, is do we need another patronizing movie to tell us this?  Well—no, and certainly not yet another one set during World War II. The reason that great evils like genocide still occur is not because their perpetrators haven’t seen the misery it brought on Germany (a misery that is particularized quite well in the film); it’s because (among other things) they see their situation as fundamentally different.  Of course it’s not—it never is—but making more and more WWII dramas about it just serves to distance its evil further for a modern audience. 

The Holocaust was a terrible time in human history—in some ways the worst ever—but to dwell on it when genocide, slavery, and all sorts of other inhuman atrocities surround us would be just as big a mistake as forgetting it entirely.  In other words, the lessons of the Holocaust are invaluable, but we should put them into practice today, rather than merely parroting them and then patting ourselves on the back for doing so years ago.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens today at the Circle Cinema. Call 592-FILM for showtimes and tickets.

About the author:

A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.