Saturday, September 13, 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS - an immaculately-made, disturbing film (*spoilers*)

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is, deep breath, a film about the Holocaust for children, based upon a book that is now being taught in British schools. The fact that it may be on your child's book list shouldn't make you complacent about taking them to see it. It's a disturbing picture and seeing things on the big screen can be more horrific than reading them on a page. It's important to teach this history but please be aware that the film-makers do not pander to their audience in the final ten minutes. If you need further information you can check out the PBBFC information here.

Ok. Public Service Announcement over, we can get back to the review. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is a deeply affecting, well-made drama aimed at children, but worth watching as an adult. The movie is told from the point of view of an eight-year old boy called Bruno, and the film-makers are careful to introduce the details of the Holocaust very slowly. The first time we see Bruno's father he isn't in uniform. He just looks like a normal dad. And it helps that the mostly British cast choose not to play it with caricature German accents. Still, Bruno is an observant child and he can tell that his grandma isn't happy with his father's decision to move the family to the countryside. Once in the new house, Bruno is frustrated and lonely. He manages to sneak out of the house and stumbles upon the electric fence of a "farm" where everyone wears "striped pyjamas".

The clever thing is that none of the adults lie to Bruno. The assumptions that he makes about the prisoners and the nature of the camp are all logical and plausible when viewed from the perspective of an innocent young boy who falls back on the presumption that his dad is a good man. Even when Bruno starts speaking to Schmuel, an 8-year old prisoner, he is slow to catch on. So long as you can grant the film-makers the initial conceit that these two boys could have met, the rest of the movie flows naturally. Their conversations, rationalisations, mistakes and reconciliation have an air of authenticity.

The denouement comes swiftly and, for adults, with a grim sense of what the end will be. The grim inevitability and sheer horror is enhanced by James Horner's tremendous orchestral score which builds to a literal scream. I was surprised by just how straightforward the film was and just how affecting the end was. This is surely as it should be. This is the sort of film that you don't leave the cinema talking about with your friends. You walk home in silence, considering what you've seen.

Kudos to novelist John Boyne and screen-writer, director Mark Herman for having the judgement to bring this to the screen. Herman in particular deserves praise for getting good performances from the two young boys, Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon. David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga are typically good as the parents, but we also get a very powerful cameo from Sheila Hancock as the grandmother. I also thought this was the first film in which Rupert Friend gave a very convincing and nuanced performance.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS is on release in the UK. It opens on September 26th in Spain; on October 3rd in Ireland; on November 7th in the USA; on January 23rd in Norway; on February 12th in Argentina; and on April 2nd in Germany.


  1. uggh. I found this movie painfully missguided. All of our attention is focused on Bruno, and his death is used to make us feel guilty about the holocaust. It's almost as if the film is saying sometimes the wrong people die in war, because Bruno wasn't a Jew he wasn't "supposed" to be cremated. And the English accents? Give me a break.

  2. You miss the entire point, Anonymous. The film wasn't made to make us feel guilty about the holocaust. The intended audience wasn't even born at the time and couldn't have changed anything about it. While it may say that the wrong people die in war, Bruno wasn't particularly singled out for it, none of the others should have died.

    The main point is to educate young people about what happened and to show that despite the cruelties they committed in the line of duty, nazis were actually human, with loving families.