It is several hours after I have attended a press screening for "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," the opening night film for the 2008 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I cannot shake the images from my mind.
Based upon a novel by John Boyne that was primarily directed at children, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is the story of a most extraordinary friendship between two 8-year-old boys, Bruno (Asa Butterfield, "Son of Rambow") and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon).
Bruno, you see, is the son of a fierce, dutiful concentration camp commandant (David Thewlis, of the "Harry Potter" films) during the holocaust...Shmuel is a young boy that Bruno meets one day while exploring the forbidden areas behind the new family home that curiously overlooks a mysterious "farm" and people who appear to dress in pajamas.
I have long professed my love for British family films. British family films are far more intelligent, far less "busy" and they simply don't condescend to children or families.
Is it possible to make a family film about the holocaust? If "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" was an American film, it would undoubtedly become a sentimental, weepy film or would simply dissolve into a sea of manipulation. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" avoids these manipulations of the story and, rather courageously, presents the story of this friendship with great realism and stark truth.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is a mesmerizing film that has left me pondering its images, its words and its actions long after I have left the theatre.
Seldom have I seen such truth and such innocence embraced by such harrowing imagery.
Given that Disney owns Miramax, some have expressed concern about the "Disneyification" of this story...rest assured, the studio's release of this film "as is" is a bold, courageous and I dare say not so market friendly gesture.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," as directed by Mark Herman ("Little Voice"), avoids Hollywood stylings and glossings over. While the film does simplify the holocaust, much to the dismay of some historians, it does so solely by seeing the holocaust through the eyes of 8-year-olds who seem almost impossibly naive.
We are introduced to young Bruno as he and his young friends are mock "flying" around the sidewalks of Berlin. It becomes obviously right away that something is amiss...while the young boys innocently play, Jews in the background are being carted away. Bruno is oblivious to the world around him, protected as he is by being the son of a rising German soldier. Even when the family relocates to the countryside estate that overlooks the concentration camp, Bruno remains ignorant to the true devastation that surrounds him. His innocent inquiries about the farmers, the pajamas, the heavily smoking chimneys, the horrid smells and the unusual stories of those who surround him are typically met with minimal, if any, explanation.
When he meets Shmuel, who is sitting alone on the other side of a barbed wire fence, he believes the young boy to be playing some kind of game in his pajamas with a number on them.
I am heartbroken, even now, simply remembering the words exchanged between the two boys.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is undoubtedly not a film that every child should view, and I would strongly recommend that children view it in the company of a parent or adult who can help process the often intense words and imagery contained within this PG-13 rated film. Some might say this film is far TOO heavy for children...I disagree. Children who have been able to view the cartoon violence of "The Dark Knight" or "Iron Man" would do well to see the real impact of hatred, violence and prejudice contained within this film.
Is it devastating? Absolutely. It is also the truth.
As the two young boys, Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon are stellar in their ability to evoke complete and utter innocence despite the world that surrounds them. As the film winds down, this blend of innocence with stark reality is astounding to watch unfold. Blind to a full understanding of what surrounds them, the two children enter their friendship seemingly unaware of what it all means and where it's all headed.
Nearly as harrowing as watching the friendship of these two young boys unfold is observing Bruno and his family as it becomes more and more obvious the full spectrum of what is going on around them.
While Herman wisely avoids the "Disneyification" of this film, so too he avoids painting anyone with broad strokes of evil or good. As Bruno's father, David Thewlis is astounding as a man who does, it seems, truly love his family and yet is completely blinded by duty and nationalism. Initially, his wife (Vera Farmiga, "The Departed") is fiercely loyal and speaks disparaging of the Jews...yet, over time, the entire plot unfolds and she begans to see an evil within her husband she never new existed. Farmiga's transformation from dutiful wife to destroyed mother and spouse, especially towards the end, is devastating. Finally, Amber Beattie is spot-on perfect as Bruno's older sister, a young girl who is both easily influenced towards supporting Hitler while remaining tenderly protective of her brother.
The supporting cast shines, as well, including Rupert Friend as an up-and-coming lieutenant with a secret of his own, Cara Horgan as a house maid/caregiver, and David Hayman's portrayal of an older, ill-fated Jew.
James Horner's original score is exemplary, and the production design of Martin Childs perfectly blends elements of innocence within the stark surroundings.
After receiving its North American premiere as the opening night film of Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is scheduled for a limited nationwide release on November 7, 2008.
By no means an easy film to view, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" may very well be 2008's most important family film. Simply, yet with integrity, Mark Herman has created what is easily one of 2008's best family films and a film that will evoke a wide array of thoughts, emotions and conversations from audience members of all ages.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic