Mutter's Little Angel: Asa Butterfield is Bruno, son of a Nazi commandant, and Vera Farmiga his mother in 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.'
'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' presents the Holocaust for dummies.
By Richard von Busack
Do you remember a guy named Bill Burrud? He was a travel show host, a UHF hobgoblin--the smarter Huell Howser, really. One afternoon in the early 1960s I was doing some unsupervised viewing when I changed the channel to catch Burrud and his wife exploring what seemed to be a giant shoe store. A Polish shoe store, yet. A Polish used-shoe store and a messy one, in which all the shoes were kept in a large pile. Going to buy shoes was absolutely the most boring thing in my boring life, and I gaped at the idea of someone filming such a crucible of boredom. Then it turned out that the untidy shoe store was also an untidy wig-shop, with a large pile of hair and braids on the floor. And then, as Burrud took the cameras deeper into Auschwitz/Birkenau, things started to get a little bad.
My point is that there's no good way to introduce a child who knows nothing about it to the subject of the Holocaust. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is probably going to be the default method, even with the film's ending, which avoids the relative upbeatness of Schindler's List. It has tastefully elided nudity in the shower scenes, and an emphasis on the humanism that never dies, not even in a career SS man's breast. It'll be screening in classrooms for years to come.
A concentration camp commandant (David Thewlis) of good family takes over his new post deep in the countryside. His isolated son, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), once a popular Berlin boy, finds himself with nothing but trees surrounding him; his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) is too busy flirting with a coldly handsome young soldier (Rupert Friend) to pay Bruno any mind. From his back window, Bruno can see a mysterious farm. Despite warnings from his mother, he eventually climbs over the fence, across the creek and through the trees to make friends with a strange imprisoned boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), so young that he's still losing his baby teeth.
Director Mark Herman (Little Voice) lets the mostly British cast keep their accents to make this tragedy less nationally specific. Thewlis' Lancashire there's-been-trouble-at-the-mill dialect emphasizes his tied hands, his painful duty.
It must be all the sadder for the poor man because his prisoners are all downcast victims, and that's where the fablelike aspect comes in. It's not in the unguarded perimeter of one of the Reich's darkest secrets, and not in the strangely timeless setting. What year is this movie taking place? In 1942 the Final Solution was implemented, but there are few signs of the war's hardships. There is still loads of food in Bruno's kitchen, for instance, long after rationing would have started, and Bruno's mom (Vera Farmiga) shops till she drops.
Where The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems especially a fable, though, is that no one tries to game this peculiarly unjust system. Friend's Lt. Kotler--the cute boy in the movie--is sweet on Gretel, but doesn't have the brains to make nice with her little brother, who is also the child of his superior officer. Most people in the military would have at least the common sense to pretend to like the kid. And the other concentration camp inmates we meet--among them Karl (Henry Kingsmill), a former doctor humbled into working as a potato peeler in the kitchen--haven't been hardened at all by the historical abomination they're trapped in. They're too moral to try to manipulate young Bruno to survive; Shmuel's friendship has no envy in it, no calculation; he's the kind of innocent child who never lived anywhere except on a movie screen.
This is what makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas mercifully short and well-produced kid stuff for that day when you'd like to broach the subject to your offspring ("Remember yesterday when you were saying it was such a beautiful world? Well, in fact ..."). However, there are a couple of genuine components in this artificial film. James Horner's score should be the Oscar winner this year--he fills in a lot of Bernard Herrmann's blank spots, and you find yourself being swept by its moods even when you know better. It's unusually uncheap symphonic movie music. As Bruno's mom, Farmiga looks unusually comfortable in the wartime gowns and coiffures. And that haunted face, the alert, blue-ice eyes and that air of Slavic tragedy get you a little more in the mood for the eventual shock of revelation.
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