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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
by John Boyne
(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Boy In the Striped Pajamas" (aka, "Pyjamas")

There is much manipulation in trying to shove irony down our throats and this Holocaust-related story, based on a novel by John Boyne, pretty much does that. What it presents as real may well be, but the adaptation by director Mark Herman ("Brassed Off," 1996) is guilty of poor judgement in structuring it for a hammer-head emotional blow. Its obvious telescoping of events at a Nazi concentration camp reduces true horror to exaggerated caricature.

At first one admires the telling of a WWII story from the perspective of an eight year-old son of a Nazi officer, a rather rare approach in the massive movie literature on the subject. Young Bruno (Asa Butterfield) may be proud of his dad but father's promotion to commandant, with more frills to his uniform, comes with the extreme disappointment of having to move from his wonderful Berlin home, and from his play pals, to a country house in the German boondocks.

If father (David Thewlis, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") sees a downside in his reassignment he isn't showing it, being the dutiful soldier in the Nazi cause that he is. Mom (Vera Farmiga, "The Departed"), on the other hand, is a bit more understanding of Bruno's anguish, but the pride of her husband's advancement trumps the loss of a really wonderful and commodious home, afforded them by the Reich. Teenage daughter Gretel (Amber Beattie) takes it more in stride.

When they arrive at their new house they find a colorless and cold domicile that seems to express official function more than architectural warmth. It has a large driveway and garden and a groundskeeper wearing the striped uniform of the concentration camp that abuts the household property. Bruno will learn that the man's name is Pavel (David Hayman), that he once was a doctor, and that people such as he are not to be considered by any good German to be human, at all. What Bruno does not learn is that his father's promotion and reassignment was to administer the camp and that there's a reason he's been forbidden to stray outside the house grounds.

As it's hard to keep a lonely eight-year old boy confined, he's soon off on jaunts into the forbidden forested land surrounding the estate, fashioning himself an explorer, doing what any lonely boy will. When he comes upon the metal fence surrounding the prison compound, which may be electrified, he's shocked to discover a boy his age, in the same pajama outfit as the groundskeeper, sitting on the other side, apparently (to us) spending his day hiding from his fellow pajama-wearers.

Despite the weird name of Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), Bruno sees the boy as a new friend playing a game that he'd like to participate in--a childishly naive miscalculation that will have consequences. In repeated visits, the boy of rank and privilege brings his new pal food, proving himself a worthy and loyal friend. The way Schmuel devours the snacks tells us about his hunger, though his round face and full body seems to belie it. So much for the casting. Scanlon's Irish brogue is part of the general lack of anything resembling German accents in the principle cast. Didn't bother them (the filmmakers); but it bothered me.

As tension builds around the question of what this childhood friendship will mean to Bruno's parents when it's discovered, their mutual trust builds the underlying terror that we know will come. The seething incompatibility of the secret relationship portends something explosive in what has developed into a well-constructed suspense story, up to a point. Unfortunately, what does occur, while unpredictable from the facts we know, is so over-dramatized and manipulated, that we're left with the mere trailings of credulity.

We smell a TV mentality which, all too often and from whatever continent, translates into doubt, if not an unfortunate disbelief. This effect is not brought about as far as the underlying facts suggest, but in the process of bringing them to the feature film format. I, personally, wish John Boyne's story had been adapted and cast by a French or German production company, where verrisimilitude might have been given a greater share of concern.

Get it now! (Click on item link)
  • Deleted Scenes with (optional) commentary by writer-director Mark Herman and author John Boyne.
  • Friendship Beyond the Fence Featurette
  • Feature commentary by Herman and Boyne
    The Blu-ray Edition DVD

  • Same as above
  • Putting that aside, David Thewlis is good as a Reichsland father who retains family values and, moreover, could pass for Teutonic. Farmiga is outstanding in conveying the motherly role as it conflicts with the changing motherland. Composer James Horner's soundtrack ably enhances the tale throughout.

    Much is warranted by what Farmiga's character knew and didn't know, and what she was going to do about it when the blinders came off. So, one can't help but ask, what kind of Germans are these? Didn't these people see photos in the papers so that by this time in the war they could tell the difference between nighttime garb and the uniform of death?

    Germany was never as totally insular as the North Korea of today. The maniacal fuehrer was never the thoroughly repressive Kim Jong Il. The uniformity of naivete' depicted here as representative of the non-Jewish, non-military German citizenry--particularly in the household of a military functionary--is a troubling story point around which climactic consequences, for the sake of dramatized irony, are forged in an otherwise well-produced film.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  

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