The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Created on 20/9/2008

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a truly fascinating film with a German central character, an eight-year-old boy, set in the Second World War. Ironically I happen to be writing a book about a German hero in the Second World War and am therefore dealing with the moral anomalies of such a scenario.

In this film, Bruno, is the son of a German army officer during the Second World War. His young life in Berlin is idyllic; he loves his parents and his strong willed sister, Gretel.

Bruno and his friends hardly notice the war other than for the games he plays with his bunch of local friends. As they play their childish games we catch glimpses of the round up of the Jews as they are summarily shipped out of town. We glimpse the gathering storm from the moments when Bruno’s grandmother played with glacial solemnity by Sheila Hancock, express her disquiet with suppressed fury aimed at her son, who refuses to countenance any protest against the German’s Nazi leadership. He is supported in everything he and the Party do by the family grandfather, Richard Johnson.

The family live in a wonderfully appointed five-storey mansion, but with only the briefest of warnings are suddenly moved to a place called Out-With (Auschwitz). Bruno, outraged by his father's decision to move to Out-With, and desperate to go home, spends his time in his room with no friends.

At Auschwitz his father becomes the strict commander of a Nazi concentration camp. Bruno initially thinks this is some kind of farm, and the people dressed so strangely in striped pyjamas are therefore farm workers. As far as Bruno understands this is just another way of for his father to be a soldier; like most 8 year-old boys he has no idea what is really going on.

In the new house Bruno finds there isn't any room for his hobby of exploration. He misses their old house and Berlin. Through Bruno’s bedroom window, in the distance, he spots a fence with people in striped pyjamas behind it. These are the despised, sub-human Jews, and they are in a concentration camp.

Bruno’s only contact with the Jews is via the man who helps out in the kitchen. This is Pavel, a middle-aged skeleton of a man, who shuffles around on broken shoes without laces or socks. It is Pavel who looks after Bruno when he falls from his swing and for the first time we realize that the man was a Doctor before he was forced into slavery to peel potatoes. The boy understands that this man is a human being, and the humanity of his mother becomes apparent when she thanks Pavel for having looked after her son.

Bruno’s parents arrange a tutor to home teach Bruno and Gretel so they hire Herr Liszt who Bruno believes is the most boring teacher in the world - because he teaches science instead of the arts, which Bruno prefers. He is also an avid Nazi and he soon has Gretel following their teaching, which Bruno can’t understand.

Suffering from boredom and confusion the small boy decides to discover what’s going on at Out-With and why the people there dress in striped pajamas.

Bruno meets and forms a deep friendship with a boy behind the fence called Shmuel, who tells him he is Jewish. Inch by terrible inch the film reaches its climax that I won’t reveal here. Let me say that this is a film everyone should see, particularly children.

Paradoxically I found myself remaining emotionally detached despite the central characters’ sad situation. Perhaps this is because some of the victims were also the perpetrators of these terrible crimes against humanity. More likely its because many of my own family, who I know nothing about, and never will, were murdered by men like Bruno’s father.

The director, Mark Herman delivers a compelling narrative with calm assurance, without falling in the trap of becoming schmaltzy or melodramatic.

The cast is low key and intense, with David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga playing the parents of Bruno with restraint and sympathy. Asa Butterfield is wonderful as Bruno. I have the same feeling about this young actor as I once had about the boy star Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. Asa has beautifully expressive blue eyes, like saucers full of innocence and a naïve intelligence that makes the finale all the more moving.

This is not a great film, but it is certainly well worth seeing.