Friday, 24 April 2020

Movie Review: The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008)


A view of the holocaust from the perspective of the young German son of a concentration camp commander, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a drama of tragic awakening.

In Berlin during World War Two, Ralf (David Thewlis) is a senior army commander, and receives a promotion to oversee a concentration camp in a secluded rural area. He relocates his family, consisting of wife Elsa (Vera Farmiga), 12 year old daughter Gretel (Amber Beattie) and 8 year old son Bruno (Asa Butterfield), to a large mansion near the camp. The move is tough on Bruno, who has to give up all his friends.

After encountering a Jewish former doctor now forced into slave labour, Bruno still has limited understanding of what is going on and believes the camp to be a farm. He eventually ventures out to explore and reaches the camp's outer perimeter, where across the security fence he befriends a prisoner his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Meanwhile the atrocities at the camp drive a wedge between Elsa and Ralf, while Gretel is indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda and buys into the hateful ideology.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas explores the lack of awareness and divisions among Germans relative to the holocaust. Director Mark Herman adapted the 2006 book by John Boyne, and follows young Bruno, a naturally curious and playful 8 year old, as he is yanked from his familiar Berlin surroundings and into the docile countryside. There he fights boredom and strings clues together about the "farm" next door, but still has difficulty understanding the magnitude of the horror being perpetuated.

The film runs an efficient 94 minutes, and while little time is created for meaningful character arcs, Herman also avoids dawdling and melodrama. This is a clear-headed, schmaltz free stance, presenting facts within and outside the family as discovered by a child. The flickers of protest start with Bruno's grandma, who disapproves of Nazi ideology and is not afraid to speak her mind. Later an officer reporting to dad Ralf reveals his family secret, and finally mom Elsa reaches the breaking point where Nationalism yields to abhorrence.

Bruno's sister Gretel is young enough to be brainwashed and represents the ease with which a virulent ideology can spread. Books full of hate taught by a scrupulous instructor soon transform her into a loyal young advocate for the regime. Bruno is not immune: Herman offers a stark reminder of the power of propaganda films on immature minds.

Meanwhile Bruno is also exposed to helpful farmers who used to be doctors, chimney stacks belching black smoke at regular intervals, and a young boy like himself but always wearing pyjamas and confined to the other side of the fence. The world is what it is, and Bruno tries to make sense of it the only way a child knows, by exploring, making new play friends, and displaying natural human kindness not yet stifled by hatred.

In keeping with the film's tone, Herman works his way to a grounded resolution. In one of the darkest chapters of human history, one child's story is but a fragile ray of light.






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