the Holocaust to a little kid? For that matter, how do you explain it to anyone? One of the most horrific, truly awful things in the history of mankind, the Holocaust claimed the lives of millions as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish race among several other ethnicities and entire cultures. As difficult as it can be to fathom now, in 2013, how would you explain it to a child growing up in the 1940s? How about an eight-year old boy growing up in 1940s Germany? That question provides the background for one of the best movies I've seen in quite awhile, 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
It's Berlin in the 1940s, and a young boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is more than upset when his father, a S.S. officer (David Thewlis) in the German army has received a promotion, one that requires the family to a new posting and home in the countryside. Removed from his friends and isolated in the country, Bruno hates the new home. One day, exploring in the woods beyond the house, young Bruno finds an expansive barbed-wire fence, a little boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), wearing pajamas sitting on the other side. The boy sees other people dressed just like Shmuel and assumes they're living on some sort of farm, but he can't tell for sure. From his tutor, from his sister, from his father's fellow officers, he hears about how the Germans are the master race, the Jewish people one step above scum. Bruno tries to get answers of what's going on, but nothing seems to click for him, his friendship with Shmuel seemingly one of the few positives he does have.
Semi-SPOILERS if you want to skip this paragraph, Semi-SPOILERS. Bruno's father is the new commandant of a concentration camp tasked with exterminating thousands of Jews and other ethnicities. His father -- unnamed -- keeps the secret from his family, especially Bruno, and it's only after living there for several months that Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) figures it out and is horrified at the truth. The camp is never identified by name and for the most part it isn't shown clearly. We get glimpses of what's going on, hear some conversations, see some paperwork about massive crematoriums, but nothing is ever aggressively shown to the audience....with one major exception. I think it's a great stylistic choice because we hear/see what Bruno hears and sees. We're left to draw our own conclusions without anything obvious. End of SPOILERS.
Based off a novel from author John Boyne and directed by Mark Herman, this is a beautifully told, unsettling, tragic film that I can't recommend enough. Will you like it? It's hard to say you "like" a Holocaust movie, but this was an excellent film from beginning to end. Movies about the Holocaust are typically seen from two perspectives; the prisoners and the Nazis/Germans in charge of the camps. How different is it then to tell this story through the eyes of a curious, friendly, lonely 8-year old boy? It's a perfect storytelling device. It is a World War 2 movie, a Holocaust movie, but because it isn't handled directly with the subject matter, there's a certain charm to it, both good and bad. There is a beauty to the film in its visual look and appearance. Filming out in the countryside goes a long way in its natural beauty, comparing it to the cold, sparsely decorated house that reflects the quickly-turning opinion on what's going on.
So go figure, a movie about the Holocaust is really more of a coming of age story. This is a movie about an eight-year old boy growing up, albeit in one of the world's most turbulent, violent periods in history. The recent star of Ender's Game, Butterfield delivers an amazingly real, personal and heartbreaking performance as young Bruno. He's proud of his Father because boys should be proud of their fathers, even if he questions exactly what his father's job is. He loves reading adventures, exploring the woods, all the things a little boy should do. Bruno is also looking for a friend and finds it across a barbed wire fence in Shmuel, a young Jewish boy who's always hungry but enjoys just sitting and talking to Bruno. Their unlikely friendship is perfectly handled, Bruno curious to what's going on, Shmuel not sure how to explain what is going on, only knowing whatever it is, it isn't right.
The performances across the board are pretty perfect, starting with Butterfield and Scanlon as the two boys. Farmiga does a fine job as Bruno's mother, supportive of her husband but not fully knowing what he's in charge of. I did question why/how she couldn't know what he has been assigned to do, but it provides an interesting character arc for her. Thewlis as the Father/commandant is a difficult character to wrap my head around, a loyal soldier, committed to his duty, blind to the horror he's been assigned to do. Amber Beattie is very good as Bruno's sister, Gretel while Richard Johnson is memorably obtuse as their grandfather, a loyal German. Also worth mentioning are Rupert Friend as Lieutenant Kotler, Father's right-hand man, Jim Norton as Herr Lizst, the children's tutor, and David Hayman as Pavel, a Jewish man who does odd jobs around the new house after they move in. Is it weird all these Germans have English accents? Sure, but reviews that point that out are simply missing the point.
This was a movie I couldn't quite figure out. I was never quite sure where it was going, knowing there an end game here, a message that would land heavy, hard and effective. I'm not going to reveal anything or give away any spoilers, but the ending here is beyond heartbreaking, composer James Horner's score bringing it to life (sounded a little like A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates). I was pretty much ruined for the day after seeing the finale. Unbelievably tragic, heartbreaking, incredibly moving, any and all, it's an amazingly emotional ending. Maybe this isn't a movie to truly enjoy, but to experience. A must-see.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): ****/****