Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Folks, this really is a must-see movie.

The Holocaust has generated a rich legacy of books and movies chronicling the historic awfulness. The downside is that any new, similarly themed release has to compete with powerful works such as Night and Schindler's List that also double as a source of information for millions of people. When cultural and historical forces like that align, the standards for a Holocaust-themed movie become exceedingly high. And with at least one or two such movies coming out ever year, familiarity creeps in. After all, how many stories from that era can be told?

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes place during the Holocaust, but the setting ignites a young boy's comprehension of the world around him, instead of serving as a history lesson or a plea for remembrance. Director/writer Mark Herman (Little Voice), working from John Boyne's novel, tells a story about people living under different states of siege, and he does it simply and with understated power.

Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an adventurous kid living in 1940s Berlin whose world crumbles when his father's responsibilities as a Nazi officer forces a move to the German countryside. The family's new house is gorgeous and comes with a staff of servants, but Bruno is bored to tears. He's pretty much confined to his room or his tiny backyard, and his parents (David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga) don't offer a concrete reason why he can't explore. It's all perfectly harmless. After all, there's a "farm" right outside his bedroom window, or at least there is until the view is boarded shut.

There are other small clues that something isn't right in his new home. When asked about his job, Bruno's father reverts to PR speak: "All you need to know is that it's very important work for my country." When Bruno falls off a tire swing, he's immaculately patched up by an emaciated servant, who explains to the lad that he was a doctor before coming here. Why would a doctor peel potatoes? Bruno wonders.

One day, Bruno takes off beyond his back yard, runs through the forest, and finds the forbidden farm interrupted by a tall fence. At least, there's a kid on the other side. Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) wears pajamas with a number and looks a lot younger than his eight years, but, hey, it's a playmate. Bruno strikes up a conversation, and proceeds to visit his new friend repeatedly, bringing food and games but each time leaving with a sharpened perspective.

The developing rapport between Bruno and Shmuel is captivating, but Herman doesn't rely on it exclusively. If that's not the case, the movie becomes a cutesy parable on friendship without prejudice. Herman smartly focuses on the struggles faced by Bruno's family, so his visits with Shmuel become a salvation for both boys. Bruno's sister (Amber Beattie) becomes a full-fledged supporter of the Nazi regime, ditching her dolls for propaganda posters. Mother, long insulated by the urban splendor of Berlin, is distraught to learn what comes out of the farm's chimneys, and that it's right outside her door. As for Father, his charm and composure cuts both ways. A chilling dinner scene with his family and a young lieutenant (Rupert Friend) shows the true depths of his viciousness.

Aside from Herman's screenwriting savvy, he gets terrific performances from young leads Butterfield and Scanlon. (Don't worry. The grown-up performances, especially from Farmiga and Thewlis, are solid.) As the boys' friendship grows, so does their awareness and their ambition to become real friends. The process is uncomfortably genuine--Shmuel and Bruno don't know any better, while Butterfield and Scanlon come across in their scenes together like regular kids.
Nothing here feels staged. The subdued style and the gradual build-up of the characters' limitations (whether put up by themselves or by others) make for compelling viewing. The dream world the Nazis created slowly becomes a personal nightmare, with only two boys willing to wake up and face the reality. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows that a small act of bravery can come at a steep price. It's a haunting piece of work

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