Judge Clark Douglas thinks this film is far more than mere Oscar bait.
Our review of The Boy In The Striped Pajamas: Classroom Edition, published July 15th, 2009, is also available.
"Lines may divide us, but hope will unite us."
"Those people…they aren't really people."
Facts of the Case
Bruno (Asa Butterfield, Son of Rambow) is a carefree 8-year-old German boy living in Berlin. The second world war is raging on, and Bruno's father (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is an officer in the German army. One day, news comes that Bruno's father has been promoted. Unfortunately, this means moving out of Berlin. Bruno's mother (Vera Farminga, The Departed) is not thrilled about the idea of taking Bruno and 12-year-old Gretel (Amber Beattie, Walking to Nairobi) into a new environment, but what must be done must be done. Sadly, it seems that Bruno's new job is running a Nazi prison camp. Bruno thinks that the camp is a farm, and that the farm is operated by funny-looking men wearing pajamas. His parents do nothing to discourage this assumption. Bruno is not supposed to go near "the farm," but being an adventurous and curious young lad, he does so anyway. When playing near the prison camp fence, he meets a Jewish 8-year-old named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). The pair become friends quickly, and begin to meet every day for brief visits. How long can such a friendship last?
I'm having a rather difficult time reviewing this film. I think I am simply too sad to offer you a truly objective review, so I'll stick with honesty. As a film critic and reviewer of DVDs and Blu-ray discs, I see hundreds of films each year. Good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones. Many of these are designed to have some sort of emotional impact, attempting to affect the viewer in some sort of profound way. After all the thousands of movies, I've grown immune to a great deal of it. Too often, instead of witnessing something genuinely moving, I see a director or writer or actor attempting to jerk tears and gasps from me. I am often touched or moved by films, but rarely by the films that seem to be trying the hardest to move or touch me. There is a reason that I find something as seemingly lightweight as A Prairie Home Companion far more affecting than the average Lifetime or Hallmark drama offering the saga of some sweet person with a horrible disease.
I am very wary of emotional manipulation in movies. I am willing to succumb to it when it is delivered honestly and organically, but too often it feels abusive. In particular, this has a tendency to happen in "important movies," in which a filmmaker will simply go too far in attempting to make the viewer care about the subject at hand. The Holocaust is surely the most devastating event in modern history, and it is an easily abused subject. For every intensely moving drama like Schindler's List and Sophie's Choice, there's a repulsive alternative like Life is Beautiful, Apt Pupil, or Jerry Lewis' infamous The Day the Clown Cried.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has been accused by some critics of falling into the latter camp. The New York Times claimed that the film has had the Holocaust, "trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family." Entertainment Weekly also declared The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to be one of the year's worst films, calling in "appalling" and "disturbing," and claiming that it would give children "serious nightmares." I have now seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for myself, and I really do understand these complaints. The ending is melodramatic and tragic in the extreme. It is appalling, and it is disturbing, and it will give young children nightmares. However, in this instance, I am reminded of something the ever-thoughtful Roger Ebert once said when reviewing the immigration drama El Norte: "I've read reviews criticizing the film for its melodrama, but it occurred to me that the lives of poorer people are melodrama from birth to death. It takes a lot of money to insulate yourself in a less eventful, more controllable, life."
Isn't the entire concept of the Holocaust absurdly melodramatic in and of itself? It's very nearly beyond comprehension. The melodrama is certainly here, and it will offend some viewers. Speaking only for myself, I was affected on a profound level. The Holocaust is something so huge and so tragic, I think perhaps that it is occasionally difficult to grasp the full scope and horror of the tragedy. Have you ever been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.? I went some years ago. I knew a great deal about the Holocaust, and didn't expect that the Holocaust museum was going to teach me a lot more. To a degree, I was correct. I read things and heard stories that sound very familiar. However, it wasn't until I walked down a hallway filled with thousands of old shoes which once belonged to prison camp victims that the profound sadness of the Holocaust was truly impressed upon me. I was broken for the remainder of the day, and that moment lingers with me. The devastating power of that moment returned to me while watching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as the camera lingers on a haunting image during the film's final scene.
That individual moment might have been the one that finally crushed me, but the entire film is an incredibly sad experience. Yes, the scope of the Holocaust is captured here, but there is more to it than that. Quietly and wisely, the film observes the nature of children and childhood. Not only the naïve innocence that would allow a young boy to become convinced that he was living next to a farm run by people in striped pajamas (I can practically hear the sneers about such a narrative device as I write this), but also the startling lack of caution employed by callous grown-ups when putting thoughts and worldviews into the impressionable young minds of their children. It is tragic to see a young German boy torn between what he sees and what he is being told. All of the evidence that he has found indicates the the Jews are normal, good people, while the books he reads and the adults he speaks with indicate that the Jews are monsters that must be destroyed. Contrast the young boy with his slightly older sister, whose once-innocent mind has all ready been permanently corrupted. The boy is a sweet and kind-hearted young lad, but it is frightening to consider how easily he might become just like his sister. The film is not trivializing one of the great atrocities of history in order to make us feel sorry for a young German boy; it is giving us a fresh new perspective that only magnifies the far-reaching tragedy of the Holocaust.
On a technical level, the film is made with the utmost professionalism. English director Mark Herman (who previously helmed the sublime Little Voice, among other things) adapts John Boyne's novel with crisp clarity, and offers pristine set and costume design. Curiously, Herman elects to have the German actors use British accents, even when they are being played by Americans (such as lead actress Vera Farminga). Even more curiously, the move works quite well, and at least brings a consistency that was needed in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie (where Tom Cruise's American accent clashed with the British tones of the supporting cast). The strongest performances come from child actors Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon, but Farminga and the splendid David Thewlis offer nuanced support as Bruno's parents.
Despite the impressive period design on display in this film, the movie is currently not scheduled to get a Blu-ray release. Until that happens, this DVD does a relatively satisfactory job. The image is crisp and clean throughout, with well-balanced colors and accurate flesh tones. Grain is fairly minimal, and the level of detail is just slightly above-average. The audio is rather quiet throughout, with James Horner's masterful, delicate score gently supporting the dialogue and sound design. A solid track, if somewhat unremarkable overall. Extras include an audio commentary with Boyne and Herman (an interesting listen, despite lots of dead spots), a EPK-style making-of featurette, and some deleted scenes.
If you're the sort of viewer who is easily repulsed by films with the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer, there's a strong chance you may object to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. On the other hand, I'm that sort of viewer, and this one affected me very deeply. This is a film well worth seeing.
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