Director: Mark Herman, 2008.
How do you explain the Holocaust to an 8 year-old boy? How would it appear to him if he saw a concentration camp with his own eyes not knowing what it was? This is the premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the book by John Boyne. Though the story is told through the eyes of a boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), this movie is powerful and emotionally moving enough that viewer discretion is recommended for pre-teens. But for teenagers and adults, this is a film to see.
The movie opens with a happy scene. Bruno is running through a city square followed by three friends, all pretending to be planes. But this city is Berlin festooned with bright red German flags and swastikas. As they run carefree through the streets, they are juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the time: German soldiers restraining savage dogs rounding up families of Jews.
When Bruno's father, a German officer, gets promoted to be the commandant of a concentration camp Bruno sees it as a displacement from his friends. Arriving at the new home in the country, it is a stark contrast to the home they left. Where that was open and airy, classically defined, this new one looks more like a prison. Even the photography of Bruno on the staircase behind full-length banister rails makes him look like a jail-bird.
Apart from all his friends, Bruno is lonely. When he discovers a way out of his own "prison compound," he discovers a place with a barbed wire fence and a little boy, his own age, sitting by it. Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) is wearing striped pajamas with a number. Bruno thinks it's a game. Little does he know.
As the film progresses, so do the characters. Bruno begins to see that Schmuel and the others in pajamas are different, or at least are treated differently. He is confused. He likes his friend, Schmuel, but learns that he is a Jew, and Jews are supposed to be evil, animals, the cause of all that is wrong with Germany. Meanwhile, father (David Thewliss, Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), is simply doing his duty serving his country, unquestioningly killing the Jews in the gas chamber, while mother (Vera Farmiga, from The Departed) knows nothing. Life goes on for her until she finally discovers what the foul-smelling smoke from the camp really is. Then she is devastated and starts to come unglued.
The casting director for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas really scored. Asa Butterfield, in only his second feature film (his first was a minor role in Son of Rambow) is astonishing. His large blue eyes, seen in close-ups of his face so often, convey an innocence and naivety. With the restrained direction of director and screenwriter Mark Herman, Butterfield looks like a veteran. The other boy, Scanlon, cast after Butterfield was in place, has excellent chemistry as the powerless and hungry friend. This is his first feature and certainly won't be his last. The two adults hold their own, too. Thewliss eschews cliche in his role, playing the commandant not as a total monster but as a person who loves his family while slowly sliding down the slippery slope of sin and evil. He based this performance on the autobiography of Rudolph Höß, commandant of Auschwitz, written during the Nuremburg trials. But Farmiga, as mother, shows perhaps how some Germans must have felt, truly conflicted about the awfulness of Hitler's "final solution."
The screenplay avoids stereotypes and portrays the Germans as multi-dimensional characters, real people who could convince themselves that what they were doing was right. None in the film was completely evil, none was completely good. Even Bruno, the hero throughout, lies to save himself at one point, at a terrible cost to another.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is indeed a compelling story. Slow to begin with, it has a subtle pace but by the last 20 minutes of the final act, its momentum is unstoppable. It moves toward a climax that is inevitable and unavoidable, but still staggeringly shocking. When the camera lingers on a static image in the closing scene, I was left breathless and stayed rooted to my seat. The Holocaust has been the focus of other movies, such as Spielberg's epic Schindler's List. Indeed, the award-winner, Life is Beautiful, dealt with a boy in a concentration camp. But where that was a fable, this is a serious movie, and it stands up with these two modern classics. The only complaint I had is the initial strangeness of hearing all the actors (even American Vera Farmiga) speak with very proper English accents. It was a little unnerving to see Nazis and hear Brits. But the anomaly quickly paled in significance as the film's message shone out.
There are a number of ethical and moral issues addressed in this film, but three stand out. First, the treatment of the Jews as evil subhumans is obviously morally abhorrent. Jews are people just as all humans are people. We are all made in the image of God, regardless of race, sex, religion, color or creed (Gen. 1:26-27). To treat people with brutality, even killing them because of their religion, is a sin and a crime that cannot be condoned. It goes against everything that Jesus taught.
Through Bruno we also get a picture of an innocent who wants to place himself beside, associate with, and even take the place of, "a sinner". This is a beautiful image of Jesus, the innocent but suffering servant of Isaiah 53. He gave up his place of honor and power at the side of his Father to take on the form of humanity (Phil. 2:6-8). He came alongside us, lived with us as Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). He took our place (1 Pet. 2:24). In him and in him alone we can find our salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).
Finally, Bruno's friendship with Schmuel is a forbidden friendship. Despite clear instruction to not befriend Jews, he sees beyond labels to the true humanity beneath. Bruno was a soul in need of company. And Schmuel was in a similar condition. Both, in their own ways, were victims of incarceration. Schmuel was incarcerated physically. Bruno was a prisoner of his father's making, isolated from friends and imprisoned in the jail cell of racial hatred and intolerance. Yet, they formed an unlikely friendship, a kinship that traversed the barbed wire fence that separated them.
How often do we let labels or emotions separate us from others? How often do we find ourselves alone and wonder why? What is the cause of our imprisonment? Is it ourselves or is it imposed on us from others? If platonic and pure, how can a friendship really be forbidden? Let's be like Bruno. By becoming like a child, perhaps we can gain or strengthen our faith in God and our love for others (Matt. 18:4).
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs