Moviegoers can be forgiven for feeling a little Holocaust fatigue. There have been so many films about the subject or using it as a backdrop that there's no shame in feeling a bit numb to it all. And then The Boy in the Striped Pajamas comes along and gives us fresh eyes, and the wounds reopen anew.
This is the most heartbreaking film about the Holocaust since Schindler's List. That Mark Herman's film of John Boyne's novel manages such poignancy in 93 minutes is nothing short of miraculous.
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Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this is the Holocaust as viewed by children. Like Life Is Beautiful, the adults try to protect children from the details of the horrors going on around them. But unlike either of those stories, Striped Pajamas captures both the adult denial and the confusion of a German 8-year old, son of an SS officer who runs a concentration camp. We see this nightmare through the boy's guileless, guilt-free eyes. And because we know history, we see what he can't.
Asa Butterfield is the wide-eyed innocent Bruno, playing at war with friends in Berlin until his father (David Thewlis, “following orders” to a T) is transferred “to the country.” He's a soldier with “a very important job.” Unlike Bruno, we know the significance of the death's head on his SS collar tab.
The boy can see “a farm” in the distance out his window, a window that mom (Vera Farmiga) has sealed. He can see the “striped pajamas” of the children there, and of Pavel (David Hayman), the weak old man who tends their garden. He can smell the smoke coming out of the stacks over the farm.
Curiosity sends lonely Bruno to an unguarded corner of the fence, where he meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age with no more understanding of what is happening than Bruno. But Shmuel knows that the number 38454 on his shirt is no game. And Bruno knows, thanks to his nationalist teacher and a cruel über-Aryan staff officer (Rupert Friend) that Jews are “evil.” But there's nobody else his age around to talk to.
Herman, a British screenwriter and director (Brassed Off, Little Voice), has made a film uncluttered with the detail that we all know so well. The result isn't a deep film, but rather a profound one. He has reduced the experience to a child's level, letting Bruno peek in on a Nazi propaganda film about the camp, letting him puzzle over how his dad could possibly be doing anything dishonest (the propaganda film is a lie) or immoral.
Farmiga (The Departed) plays the conscience of the film, a “good German” who has gone along as the country drifted from right-wing hate speech to a “solution” for a problem she doesn't see. Farmiga's struggle to thank a Jew who helps her son is World War II Germany in a nutshell, a moment played to perfection.
But it is young Butterfield's innocence that makes Bruno and the movie work. He can ask Shmuel, “What do you burn in those chimneys?” and break our hearts. He can confuse those uniforms, burned into the historic memory, for “striped pajamas.” We don't.