A child's first lesson in aesthetic malpractice...

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

on November 06, 2008 by John P. McCarthy
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At first blush, this powerful Holocaust film—based on the young-adult fable by Irish writer John Boyne—seems to be the opposite of a bland message movie. On reflection, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is morally anodyne and superficially provocative, raising not-so-weighty questions about the limits of manipulation in narrative cinema. In sum, it doesn’t earn its tragic conclusion and fails to convince that the natural state of innocence supposedly enjoyed by children is a reliable bulwark against atrocity. According to the movie’s own logic, children don’t need to see it since the majority of them have not yet learned to be prejudiced. Just to be safe, keep them away. There’s a distinct possibility it could be their first lesson in how to commit aesthetic malpractice, if not a hate crime. Screening the film for adults in corners of the world where ethnic cleansing is currently going on (sadly, there are many) could benefit millions. The movie's actual box office performance will benefit from the book's popularity and yet those unfamiliar with the bestseller may be put off by the Holocaust theme.

Set near a Nazi concentration camp in the early 1940s, the movie centers on an eight-year-old German lad named Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who relocates from Berlin with his family—including his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) and mother (Vera Farmiga)—so his father (David Thewlis) can take up his new post as camp commandant. Bruno is told that his father will be overseeing a farm, but he detects some puzzling incongruities with this cover story meant to shield him from ugly truths. Certain parts of the estate they occupy—located a short distance from the camp—are off limits. Bored and desperately seeking playmates, Bruno can’t resist exploring and one day finds himself standing outside the camp fence, befriending the titular boy Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) whom he spots behind the barbed wire.

Thanks to a Teutonic tutor and their father’s aid Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend)—an Aryan from Central Casting—Gretel becomes enamored of Nazi ideology. As his relationship with Shmuel develops, Bruno’s sympathy for his pal approaches a highly symbolic level. When the Jewish boy’s father goes missing, Bruno volunteers to don inmate attire and enter the camp to help Shmuel look for him.

Without being too graphic, the movie’s harrowing conclusion packs an emotional wallop. How could it not? Mark Herman’s heavy-handed direction up to that point is much more problematic; the storybook idiom is painted on in distractingly thick layers that serve to distance the viewer. There’s a vague sense of otherworldliness and unreality that makes the harshness to come feel jarringly contrived and immutable at the same time. The actors’ British accents heighten suspicions about the artificiality of this handsome, glossy production shot in Hungary.

Bruno’s naiveté and insulation from the horrors of the camp are plausible only up to a point. That said, the general objection that the story is too incredible can be turned around and used to defend the movie by linking it to a common reaction to the Holocaust and crimes against humanity of a similar magnitude. To wit: “How could the German people perpetrate such unthinkable evil?” and “How could the rest of the world not have known about the ‘Final Solution’ or, worse, how could they know and still allow it to happen?”

What strikes me as entirely bogus is the notion, expressed in the movie’s taglines, that this narrative can be interpreted as hopeful or positive. Bruno is an exemplar of ignorance more than innocence. His actions can’t be construed as a model of sacrifice because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. They could if he was aware of the purpose of the camp or fully cognizant of anti-Semitism and/or the Nazi views on racial purity. Not being weighed down by prejudice doesn’t by itself make him a savior figure or make his unstained soul automatically redemptive.

For The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to be more than a perversely comforting and practically meaningless parable, for it to function like classical tragedy in other words, the pain the viewer feels must lead to deeper understanding. The proposition “Killing people because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs is wrong” may qualify as such a piece of foundational wisdom, as the stuff of an Aristotelian moment of clarification. But bludgeoning your audience in order to convey it runs the risk of appallingly bad taste.

Distributor: Miramax
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Rupert Friend, Richard Johnson, Sheila Hancock, David Hayman and Jim Norton
Director/Screenwriter: Mark Herman
Producer: David Heyman
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: November 7 ltd.

Tags: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Rupert Friend, Jim Norton, Mark Herman, Holocaust, Nazi
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