Film Reviews

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS

By • Dec 24th, 2008 •

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A harrowing, unforgettable film. I highly recommend it.

I’m assuming this is a faithful adaptation of the novel by John Boyne; however, according to my extensive reading on the subject (see my reviews of DEFIANCE and VALKYRIE), there are many obvious inaccuracies (yet necessary for the story).

Rarely, in fact, maybe never, was a high-ranking kommandant of a concentration camp, or death camp, isolated. There were comfortable barracks for rank-and-file members of the Waffen SS. Officers had requisitioned houses in the center of towns or in the immediate vicinity of the main camp. The SS families lived privileged lives and socialized among themselves.

It is estimated that the Nazis established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries. In 2007, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives received a donation of a photograph album. The inscription “Auschwitz 21.6.1944” indicated that the album contained photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, which included Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi killing center. The album belonged to and was created by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz. Höcker was stationed at Auschwitz from May 1944 until January 1945.The photographs depict Höcker with other SS officers in Auschwitz showing how SS officers stationed at Auschwitz enjoyed social functions and formal ceremonies.

The officers of the camps needed slaves for household help, cooking, cleaning and caring for Nazi children. The Nazis couldn’t use Jewish or Polish prisoners because of the Nazi racial inferior theory. There were also security reasons. The prisoners could either kill the family or escape. So, when possible, they solved their servant problem by using Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Author Laurence Rees writes in “Auschwitz: A New History”: “…as pacifists [Jehovah’s Witnesses], they refused to join the German armed forces and as a result they were imprisoned in concentration camps.” Jehovah’s Witnesses needed only to renounce their faith to obtain their freedom from the camps, but not many did and this impressed the Nazis hierarchy.

Leaving these facts behind, THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a harrowing story and fascinating film. I highly recommend it.

Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) has a charmed life in Berlin but it is shattered when his high-ranking SS father (British actor David Thewlis, not using a German accent) is assigned to run a concentration camp in the countryside. His pre-teen sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) and mother (Vera Farmiga, not using a British or German accent) quickly make an adjustment, but Bruno is unhappy. He’s alone with no friends to play with and nothing to do.

Bruno is forbidden to leave the grounds of their compound, even though he can see that there are children at a “farm” nearby. One day, he goes off exploring. He is alone all day while his mother goes to town and his sister stalks the handsome young SS officer, Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend), who is their driver. I understand the father’s stern relationship with his son, but why isn’t the mother more responsive to her son’s loneliness?

Sneaking off, Bruno finds the path to the farm. He sees a young boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and is told that the place is not a farm or fun place to be. Shmuel tells Bruno he is a Jew and that is why he is there. Bruno sees Shmuel’s fear, filthy clothes, brutal treatment and starvation. He doesn’t tell his father about the conditions at the farm.

Shmuel tells Bruno what little he knows about what is going on at the camp. Bruno begins to question his father’s role as a hero-soldier.

Every day he goes off to spend time playing with Shmuel with an electric fence separating them. He brings Shmuel food. When Shmuel is sent to his house and is caught eating a dessert given to him by Bruno, Bruno denies knowing him and giving him the food. Shmuel is quickly beaten by Kotler. Now Bruno knows that the people at the “farm” are different from him and his family.

Regretting his lie, Bruno goes back to find Shmuel bruised and worried because he has not seen his father. Considering himself an explorer, he offers to help Shmuel find his father. This leads to a horrifying tragedy.

Scanlon is a wonderful young actor. Director and co-writer (with John Boyne) Mark Herman handles the material with a deft hand. He presents the story in a straightforward way, allowing us to see and feel the horror for ourselves. We get an astonishing up-close look at concentration camp life without resorting to “a little girl in a red dress”.

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