(2008)1.5Nathan SouthernThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of the most unsettling films to emerge in quite some time. Certainly that response might seem appropriate for any film that pertains thematically to a subject as emotionally challenging as the Holocaust, but writer-director Mark Herman's fictional story -- adapted from John Boyne's 2005 novel of the same name -- feels uncomfortable in an ill-advised way. A treatment of Holocaust-related discoveries shot through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, it presents Nazi horror after Nazi horror, tempered by the irony of an innocent's continual misunderstandings. That alone is an interesting conceit and suggests dramatic promise; the problem, however, is that Herman fails to journey beyond the surface-level realities of his central perspective, which makes his film feel half-developed and poorly conceived, and drives it into sensationalism.
The tale itself pertains to Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the eight-year-old son of an unnamed Nazi officer (David Thewlis) and his wife, Elsa (Vera Farmiga). As the film opens, Bruno's dad receives an appointment to relocate the family from Berlin to a country house occupied by Nazi soldiers. The father's role ties directly into the extermination of the Jews; thus, an occupied concentration camp with gas chambers stands a few hundred feet from the house. Spotting the location from his bedroom window, Bruno misinterprets it as a farm, then defies his parents' orders to stay away from the place by visiting the fence, where he encounters a sweet-natured eight-year-old Jewish boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), dressed in a prison uniform (or the "striped pajamas" of the title), whom Bruno believes is involved in some sort of innocent "game" within the "farm." In time, the boys develop a fast friendship that results in tragic consequences.
To be certain, this picture does hint at some fascinating themes that the story could have explored, but that makes the movie extremely frustrating, for Herman skirts around the more intriguing notions that lie in the background of the tale. For example, he provides glimpses of Bruno's 12-year-old sister Gretel's (Amber Beattie) gradual indoctrination and brainwashing by the Nazis, and hints that this may on some level be tied to her stirrings of sexual attraction for a cruel Gestapo officer (Rupert Friend). But this subplot gets relegated to a footnote. And the director could easily have extended the narrative, temporally, into an intriguing and gripping look at how a family of brainwashed Nazis copes, on emotional and intellectual levels, with an intense family tragedy that they ultimately bring on themselves. But that simply isn't done here.
To his credit, Herman does seem to spend some of the film working toward the theme of the adult world gradually coming into focus through an innocent child's eyes, and the child slipping into permanent disillusionment, much as Gabriele Salvatores's brilliant I'm Not Scared (2003) did. And that represents the most profound, lofty, and noble of the movie's threads; to the extent that the film charts this territory, it renders itself semi-watchable. But Herman never wraps things up by bringing his lead character to a point of credible realization about what he's witnessing; the writer-director seems so eager to leave Bruno in a state of unblemished naivete that the final sequence undermines everything that has come before. We're asked to believe, for example, that Bruno still fails to grasp the horrific nature of the camp or the destructive toll taken on its inhabitants, even after he observes that Shmuel has been physically abused inside of the camp. In the end, Bruno's continued naivete merely looks like a convenient excuse to set up the film's final tragedy.
Admittedly, the film does benefit from some stellar performances, notably a four-barreled one by Farmiga, and a lead portrayal by young Butterfield that is magnificently wrought and convincing. These performances deserve better material, however; they should exist at the service of a script with ambitions loftier than merely stirring up indignation and easy sentiment in the audience and underscoring Holocaust barbarity -- which, in the final analysis, is all that the film really seems to be about. The motion picture accomplishes little other than elevating our own sense of human indecency, leaving us with a sense of emptiness and hopelessness while falling into the trap of exploitation. Given its subject, that feels absolutely inexcusable.
Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, and Asa Butterfield star in Little Voice writer/director Mark Herman's adaptation of John Boyne's novel concerning the forbidden friendship that between an eight-year-old German boy and a Jewish concentration camp prisoner in World War II-era Germany. The innocent son of a high-ranking Nazi commandant, Bruno has been largely shielded from the harsh realities of the war. When Bruno discovers that his father has been promoted and that their family will be moving from Berlin into the countryside, he doesn't take the news well. Increasingly bored in his sprawling yet dreary country abode and forbidden by his mother from exploring the backyard, young Bruno searches for something to do while his older sister plays with dolls and vies for the attention of handsome Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend). One day, bored and gazing out his bedroom window, Bruno spies what first appears to be a nearby farm; his parents refuse to discuss it, and all of the inhabitants there are curiously clad in striped pajamas. But while Bruno's mother naïvely believes the "farm" to be an internment camp, her husband has sworn under oath never to reveal that it is in fact an extermination camp specifically designed to help the Nazis achieve their horrific "Final Solution." Eventually defying his mother's rules and venturing out beyond the backyard, Bruno arrives at a barbed wire fence to find a young boy just his age emptying rubble from a wheel barrel. Like Pavel, the kitchen worker who cooks all of Bruno's meals, the young boy is wearing striped pajamas. His name is Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and before long the two young boys become fast friends. But the closer these two boys grow, the more Bruno becomes awakened to the horrors unfolding all around them. His mother is catching on quickly as well, a fact that causes great tension in her marriage to Bruno's father. Later, after Bruno swipes a piece of cake for Shmuel, Lt. Kotler accuses the Jewish boy of stealing and delivers a swift punishment. When Bruno's father announces that the young boy and his mother will be going to live with their aunt in Heidelberg, Bruno grabs a shovel and makes his way to the camp, setting into motion a tragic and devastating sequence of events.