If a reincarnated Aesop were inclined to pen a parable about the Holocaust, odds are it would resemble “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” The story of an eight-year-old German boy, circa 1943, whose father is promoted to commandant of a concentration camp, its triumph is in how it dissects so monumental a tragedy with such simplicity.
On the surface the military family—a mom, dad, sis and bro, doing what families do—seems blissfully unaware of its role in history. But we sense an unspoken secret…an unnamed complicity. Only a cast this competent could relate the hypocritical dynamic that might exist between one’s conscious and subconscious when survival is at issue.
Bruno doesn’t want to leave Berlin. Here he has all his friends. In an opening scene, mimicking the sounds of airplanes, they glide carelessly through the streets. But, for only a scant second, the aviator discerns hubbub and anxiety in a housing court he passes. We know they are rounding up Jews. He can’t quite identify the dismay he sees.
Anyway, he is assured he’ll make new friends, which essentially shapes the film’s ironic plot. For after arriving at the gray, concrete estate, he wonders if there’ll be kids to play with at the nearby farm. “Farm?” questions his mom, excellently portrayed by Vera Farmiga. It’s never named. But, by its number of crematoriums, we know it’s Auschwitz.
The commandant, exacted with skilled temper by journeyman David Thewlis, had guaranteed Mother that “it” was at least a couple kilometers away. Nonetheless, Bruno can see it from his bedroom. Of course the subsequently boarded-up window won’t deter this born explorer. His curiosity is further piqued by an incident with a kitchen helper.
His parents away, Bruno falls from the tire swing. In need of first aid and a calming voice, he is attended to by the ashen “farmer” Pavel (David Hayman), heretofore only a potato peeler. Bandaging the knee, the servant assures it will be fine. But Bruno rails, “How do you know? You’re not a doctor.” Pavel informs, yes he is. That’s our first tear.
Others will ultimately follow en masse, yet never gratuitously caused. This script keeps its head screwed on, rarely losing sight of the historical, psychological and sociological lessons it dutifully imparts. Being fair but not sympathetic, it slowly unravels the layers of rationalization in which its principals have wrapped themselves. Even Bruno.
A study in unintentional contradictions, the bold child, smartly evoked by Asa Butterfield, eventually finds an escape from the compound and wends his way to the “farm.” To his surprise, there, on the other side of an electrified fence, sits a disconsolate little boy in striped pajamas.
The title character, superbly etched by Jack Scanlon, says his name is Shmuel, and that he often seeks solace at the barbed wire. “Shmuel? That’s not a name. I’ve never heard of anyone named that,” asserts Bruno. Shmuel replies that he never heard of anyone named Bruno. All the same, ecstatic that they’re both eight, they decide to be friends.
What follows is a very sensitively played, emotionally charged look at childhood under the most unfortunate of circumstances. Breaking away whenever he can, Bruno brings his new pal either cakes or a sandwich…when he remembers. They amuse themselves with checkers and other games they manage to play without being electrocuted.
It is preciously touching when Shmuel, his head shaved, his adult teeth doubtlessly delayed by malnutrition, manages to laugh whilst teased during a game. Equally affecting is the tenor of their conversations. The awful truth hangs above them. They know it; they don’t know it. “The numbers, the pajamas, is it some game you’re playing?” asks Bruno.
Evincing a pained look of disbelief, Shmuel assures no game is afoot, and that his attire is not a pajama. Still, he isn’t at all able to explain why he is where he is …except that, “I am a Jew.” At home, a Nazi tutor regularly drills into Bruno and his easily brainwashed, older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) that Jews are the cause of all the world’s woes.
So it follows that Bruno’s parents are nonplussed when he inquires, “But there are good Jews, too, aren’t there?” Previously, when asked about Pavel, Father remarked, “Those people, they’re not really people at all.” Now Dad remains stolid. But motherly instinct and a seed of doubt awakened by her child forces a realization in Mrs. Commandant.
It’s the beginning of the end, for the Third Reich, for the Big Lie and all the supporting little lies. All of which is brutally encapsulated in this fable’s horrific but cautionary conclusion. Poetically saying never again, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” impresses that our very survival as a species depends on replacing scapegoatism with humanism.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” rated PG-13, is a Miramax Films release directed by Mark Herman and stars Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon and Vera Farmiga. Running time: 93 minutes
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