The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
-reviewed by Matt Sieger
April 7–14 marks Holocaust Remembrance Week in the United States. Among the many compelling films one could view to remember the victims of the Shoah, I would like to recommend the simple yet overpowering movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the young adult novel by John Boyne.
Some critics maintain that the book and the movie trivialize the Holocaust. But I find myself in agreement with the “thumbs up” for this film from the late Roger Ebert, the “critic for the common man,” as The New York Times referred to him in its obituary last week. As the obituary noted, “His credo in judging a film’s value was a simple one: ‘Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.'”
The boy in the striped pajamas is Shmuel, an eight-year-old Jewish child in a concentration camp. He is befriended by Bruno, a German boy of the same age whose father is a Nazi official in charge of the camp. They meet on opposite sides of the barbed wire. Neither of them understands what is going on at the camp. Even Bruno’s mother does not know, but when she finds out, it causes great tension in their previously well-ordered family.
Through the children’s innocence, some of the awful ironies of the situation are underlined. Bruno, instructed by a tutor, leads an isolated life in his family’s big house in the country. When he sees other children in the camp, he tells Shmuel “it isn’t fair” that he has all those friends. Bruno thinks the numbers on Shmuel’s “pajamas” must be part of a game they play.
As Bruno begins to sense what is really going on behind the barbed wire, he wonders if his father is “a good man.” But he is reassured after he secretly watches a propaganda film his father is showing the other Nazi officers about the entertainment and cultural activities the prisoners supposedly enjoy in the camp.
Yes, as critics note, some of the plot is contrived. But this is fiction. Don’t most novelists stretch plot elements to achieve dramatic effect? The setting and the facts are real. Some say the story is too simplistic in contrasting good and evil. But, until the heart-stopping ending (which is seen through the eyes of Bruno’s parents), everything is viewed through the eyes of the children. So of course they see things in black-and-white categories.
The film was produced by David Heyman, best known for the Harry Potter films. Heyman’s father is Jewish. Aware that the film is small in scope in that it deals with one family’s experience, Heyman hoped the movie would cause viewers to explore the Holocaust more in depth.
The ending of the film is mind-blowing. Director Mark Herman’s handling of it, as Ebert deftly describes, “gathers all of the film’s tightly wound tensions and savagely uncoils them. It is not what happens to the boy, which I will not tell you. It is—all that happens. All of it, before and after.”