Two boys, one always in striped pajamas

Asa Butterfield and Vera Farmiga as son and mother, living near a Nazi death camp with an SS father, in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
Asa Butterfield and Vera Farmiga as son and mother, living near a Nazi death camp with an SS father, in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
Posted: November 07, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a storybook innocence about it, by design.

A haunting Holocaust tale with a chilling end, writer-director Mark Herman's film is adapted from the young person's novel by John Boyne. Its protagonist is a 9-year-old German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield). His father (David Thewlis) is an SS commandant, and the family - including Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) and teenage sister (Amber Beattie) - is moving from Berlin to the countryside, where the father is taking up his new assignment: overseeing the operation of a Nazi death camp.

In key ways, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is like Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth: a child, caught in the waking nightmare of one of history's ugliest times, confronting the horrors of a grown-up world, and dealing with them as best he, or she, can. But Pan's Labyrinth's tiny heroine retreated into a world of fantastical beings (be they real or imagined).

Bruno, on the other hand, reaches out to another flesh-and-blood boy - a weak, starving Jew named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) - talking through the barbed-wire electrical fence that encloses the camp. Bruno, by his ignorance and innocence, becomes as much a victim of his father's epic malfeasance as the Jews sent to the camp to starve, to die.

The simple genius of Boyne's story, and Herman's adaptation, is that Bruno, his sister and his mother don't know what transpires at the camp a few miles from their house, separated by a dense copse of trees. Bruno thinks it's a farm, finding it only slightly peculiar that the "farmers" wear striped pajamas - occasionally one is sent over to peel potatoes, or scrub the floors.

Gretel, a budding member of Hitler's youth movement with a crush on her father's young aide (Rupert Friend), buys into the propaganda, the strident anti-Semitism. She wonders what's responsible for the awful smell, the ash blowing from the smokestacks, but isn't curious enough to investigate. And the wife just believes that her husband runs a work camp. That is what her husband has told her. Indeed, that is all he can say.

is a British production, and consequently its cast - all of them portraying Germans - speak in English accents. This includes Farmiga, the American, doing English, doing German (quite convincingly). Such formality takes the film another step away from hard reality and into the realm of fable, of storytelling. But it also makes the film's final sequences all the more jolting and horrifying by contrast.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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