Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia
One learns, with a certain happiness, I think, that some things do indeed "stand the test of time"; school systems in America will order hundreds of copies of books each year like "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Pearl". A book I'd noticed on school book lists the past couple of years has been Irishman John Boyne's book, "The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas". (Alternate spelling of "pajamas" in Europe, changed in America to "pajamas".) In 2008, a film adaptation of the book was released.
The film opens in Berlin and focuses on the household of a young family, about to be uprooted by World War II. The father, Ralf, (portrayed by British actor David Thewlis) has just been promoted in the SS, and has a new assignment as the Commandant of a concentration camp. The mother, Elsa (portrayed by American actress Vera Farmiga) is thrilled at her husband's professional success and is under the impression it's a labor camp. In honor of her husband's promotion, she throws a lavish party to celebrate. The children, Gretel, age 12 (portrayed by Amber Beattie)and Bruno, age 8 (portrayed by an ethereal Asa Butterfield) are less than thrilled at the prospect of leaving their beautiful home, their school and their friends in Berlin, but accept the move as a necessity, and are assured by their mother that they'll make new friends. At the party, however, the new Commandant receives less than complete support from his own mother, who is no Nazi enthusiast.
The burnished wood staircase and expansive foyer of the house in Berlin contrast starkly with a cement/brick house surrounded by walls outside of Auschwitz, where the family moves. With no other children to play with, Bruno quickly becomes bored and restless. Standing on a chair to look out of his bedroom window on the day the family moves in, he spies some buildings across the woods, and surmises he's viewing a farm. When a worker appears at the house to deliver vegetables, Bruno tells his mother he finds the "farm worker" strange, and asks why he'd be wearing "striped pajamas".
Eventually his ennui gets the better of the very physically active Bruno, and he steals away to nearby woods and finds a fenced yard. Approaching it, he sees a little boy sitting alone, who appears to be his size and age. He introduces himself, and asks the boy's name (it is Shmuel, the character portrayed by Jack Scanlon) and a friendship begins. Bruno remarks he's never heard a name like Shmuel's before, and noting that Shmuel cannot come out and play with him, but is cordoned off by the fence, he asks Shmuel what he's done to merit such treatment. Shmuel matter-of-factly announces he's a Jew.
Scenes in the film explore the evolution of the members of the family acquiring an awareness of what is really going on. When we first see Elsa in the first frame of the film, her chauffeur is opening the car door for her, and she's happily carrying a dress box. Gretel is shown playing with dolls, and Bruno's literary choices run the gamut of adventure books that would appeal to an 8 year-old boy. As time at their home outside of Auschwitz passes, each of them is stripped of their prior assumptions about the Commandant, the war, and the prisoners. Gretel abandons her massive doll collection and begins collecting War posters extolling the virtues of the Fatherland. Elsa is inadvertently alerted to the crematoria nearby, and Bruno is caught between seeing his father as a good, kind man and developing an understanding that his father is a key component in a process to exterminate good, kind people.
This film has drawn all kinds of criticism. (As has the book.) Boyne has said the book is a historical fiction. Rabbi Benjamin Blech condemned the book as an abomination, stating there is no credibility in a premise that the members of the Commandant's family could be so ignorant of "The Final Solution" that they'd not realize what was going on and the meaning of it. I think this criticism misses the mark. The film isn't about The Holocaust, just as, IMO, the film "Life Is Beautiful" isn't about The Holocaust. Both films are about families. "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" is also about childhood friendship, and how important and innocent it is. Vera Farmiga said she read the script and wondered how a Third Reich wife couldn't know what her husband was up to, and then she read journals of two wives of Third Reich Commandants and understood infinitely more.
This review will not delve further into revealing details of the plot. There are no spoilers I will reveal. I will say that I thought during the last 10 minutes of the film, my heart might beat right outside of my chest.
The acting in this film is amazingly wonderful. Vera Farmiga portrays Elsa with the ferocity of a lioness. Asa Butterfield carries this film, and that a kid his age can appear in such a large segment of the film (120 or so scenes out of the 140 that comprise the film) is a feat most actors three times his age can't handle. Jack Scanlon is keen to portray Shmuel in a way that is not too "precious". We don't see Shmuel as a puppy we'd like to rescue, but he captures well the fact that he's a little boy and a vulnerable victim as well. Amber Beattie deftly handles the transition her character makes, entering adolescence and abandoning childhood for what she believes to be worthier and more adult ideals. Perhaps the most complex role is given to David Thewlis, Commandant Ralf, who finds the professional demands of his career overtaking his paternal instincts to care for and about his family. The musical score by James Horner is terrific--lush piano chords accompany Bruno scampering through the woods with a toy airplane. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme has beautifully captured the woods, the houses, and the costumes and enhanced what the set designers, location captains and costume designer Natalie Ward have done to bring the era to life on the screen.
It has been said that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. The Holocaust is an important lesson to understand. Each family is also replete with its own history, and important lessons, too.
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