The 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.