Writer-director Mark Herman’s 2008 film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a faithful but (necessarily) condensed adaptation of John Boyne’s eponymous 2007 novel about a German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an eight-year-old inmate in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Like Boyne’s novel, the film is not a definitive history of the Holocaust. It’s not as graphic or historically accurate as Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic “Schindler’s List,” nor was it intended to be. (Indeed, Herman says in the behind-the-scenes featurette “Friendship Beyond the Fence” that he doesn’t consider “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” to be a “Holocaust film.”)
Set in the early 1940s at the height of Nazi Germany’s power, the film follows Bruno on a journey that takes him and his family from Berlin to German-occupied Poland. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a newly-promoted SS officer with a new posting: commandant of a special camp out in the countryside far the familiar surroundings of Germany’s capital.
Although Bruno isn’t thrilled to leave his nice house and life-long friends behind, he knows Ralf is a soldier and that he must obey orders, so he joins Ralf, his mom (Vera Farmiga) and older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) on a train journey from the Reich to the East. There, they move into a large, comfortable house not far from what Bruno thinks is a farm.
Despite having lived all his life in Adolf Hitler’s heavily propagandized Third Reich, Bruno doesn’t know what, exactly, his father does for a living. He believes that Ralf is a soldier who does his best to serve his country. However, he doesn’t know that Ralf is a die-hard Nazi and a key figure in Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish problem.” (Though both the movie and the novel are fictitious, Ralf is loosely based on SS Major Rudolf Hoess, the infamous commandant of the Auschwitz death camp.)
Bruno: I want to go home.
Father: You are home, Bruno. Home is where the family is.
At first, Bruno is homesick and wants to go back to Berlin, but Ralf makes it clear that the family is there to stay. Grudgingly, Bruno resigns himself to the situation and begins to explore his strange new world. The only restriction he must adhere to is to not venture too close to the “farm.”
Of course, Bruno’s penchant for exploration and his lack of playmates get the better of him, so one day he decides to boldly go to the forbidden world beyond his family compound. He treks across the field that separates the walled off house from the strange camp his father runs and sees a barbed wire fence. Beyond that he spies…a boy in striped pajamas.
Of course, we know that the boy, Shmuel, is not wearing “striped pajamas” but rather the infamous prisoners’ outfit worn by concentration camp inmates. We also know from Holocaust-themed films and historical accounts of the period, that Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel will have serious consequences, not just for both boys but for Bruno’s family.
Herr Liszt: Yes, Bruno?
Bruno: I don’t understand; the Jew is down to this one man?
Herr Liszt: The Jew here means the entire Jewish race. If it was just this one man I’m sure something would be done about him.
Bruno: There is such thing as a nice Jew, isn’t there?
Herr Liszt: [Sarcastically] I think, Bruno, if you ever find a nice Jew, you’d be the best explorer in the world.
With a running time of just 94 minutes, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a watchable parable about the clash between uncorrupted childhood innocence and the harsh realities of war. It is not an “Afterschool Special” about Auschwitz or the Holocaust in general, although the filmmakers researched the history of Hitler’s war against the Jews, especially the anti-Semitic mindset of many ordinary Germans. In several crucial scenes, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” shows that quite a few German civilians, not just Hitler and the murderous SS, were racists and believed vile and slanderous anti-Jewish propaganda.
Herman adapted John Boyne’s widely acclaimed novel for the screen as closely as possible while adjusting the story for cinematic purposes. In “Friendship Beyond the Fence,” Boyne says the screenplay is faithful to his book and praises Herman’s changes because they add depth and emotional gravity to the story.
As a director, Herman does a good job. He tells the story from Bruno’s limited point of view, so the audience doesn’t fully see the harsh realities of the Holocaust until the film’s conclusion. Herman chooses to show the horrors of Nazi racial policies in the East incrementally and subtly: here a glimpse of the camp’s menacing barbed wire fence and the desolate spaces behind it; there a shot of sooty ashes belching darkly against a clear blue Polish sky.
The film also features watchable performances from the cast. Particularly noteworthy is the acting by Asa Butterfield, who was 10 years old when “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” was filmed in Budapest. Butterfield’s expressive face, piercing blue eyes, and boyish exuberance makes this allegory about friendship trumping bigotry worth seeing. The adult cast members do a fine job here, especially David Thewlis as the loving husband and father who is also one of Hitler’s willing executioners. Thewlis could have played Ralf as a one-dimensional movie Nazi, but he chooses to portray Bruno’s father as a man who believes that he truly is doing something morally right in Germany’s name.
Some viewers might scoff at Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Elsa as a woman who is unaware of her husband’s murderous role in the extermination of Europe’s Jews. To those who aren’t familiar with World War II or Holocaust history, Elsa’s ignorance seems far-fetched, especially if she lives in a complex near the unnamed concentration camp. But in “Friendship Beyond the Fence,” Farmiga and the director point out that SS officers tasked with the Final Solution were sworn, under pain of death, to keep their activities secret from everyone, including spouses and family members.
While “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is no “Schindler’s List” or “Sophie’s Choice,” it is a deeply moving movie. It is rated PG-13 and is not as graphically violent as many films that depict the Shoah, so it’s a good film for middle school-level kids to watch and learn about this dark period of history.
- Codec: MPEG-2
- Encoding format: 16:9
- Resolution: 480i (NTSC)
- Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
- Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1
- English: Dolby Digital 5.1
- English SDH, Spanish
- Single disc (1 DVD)
- Slipcover in original pressing
- Region 1
- Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
- Studio: Miramax Lionsgate
- DVD Release Date: April 26, 2011
- Run Time: 94 minutes