During the Holocaust, 8-year-old Bruno’s family moves to a house near a concentration camp that his soldier father runs, where Bruno befriends a young Jewish boy inside the camp’s fence.
Mark Herman, 2008
A point-of-view story about the horrors of the Holocaust, this story follows Bruno from Berlin (where his grandmother speaks up against his father’s job and is hushed up, much to Bruno’s confusion) to Auschwtiz, where he’s told to stay within the confines of the house and front yard and exposed to the politics of his father, another young soldier on whom his sister has a crush, and a tutor hired to teach them how to hate Jews and love the fatherland (much to Bruno’s confusion). It’s here that Bruno, of course, makes friends with Shmuel, another 8-year-old who has the misfortune of being a Jew. Both boys are confused about what’s happening; Bruno thinks the camp is a farm where the prisoners are playing a game with numbers on their pyjamas, and Shmuel can’t figure out what’s happening to his grandparents and father, though he is constantly terrified, of course. Meanwhile his mother also has her own realisation as to what’s happening in the camp and his father continues to toe the party line.
This harrowing movie features, at its core, the innocent friendship between young Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and Shmuel (the less famous Jack Scanlon), though it’s really Butterfield’s film. He’s the lead character, features in nearly every scene of the movie, and all of the emotion of the movie can be read in his big blue eyes. This is why Butterfield is hot property in the child actor scene these days; he was good in Hugo, but he’s astonishing here, giving a performance far more mature than his years. Vera Farmiga is also good as his mother who slowly discovers what’s really happening and is destroyed by it. This kind of sentimental and emotional take on the horrors of the Holocaust has been done before – and better – in Life is Beautiful, which has a lighter touch than this effort, but the performances keep it from being completely overwrought. It’s emotionally complex in a way that’s perfect for the year 12s I’m teaching it to – very clear on how Nazi Germany operated by instilling fear and using misinformation, showing how everyday Germans became swept away by Hitler’s propaganda, and showing the horrors of the Holocaust. The actual approach is quite simplistic, which made me feel like I was being manipulated a lot of the time – something I always hate. When the ending starts, you know what’s going to happen for a while and it becomes very hard to watch.
It’s shot in bright daylight with beautiful colours, more like a fairy tale than a horror story, which adds to the child’s point of view. It’s beautiful, technically lovely, with some gorgeous shots and lovely music. The message of friendship crossing all boundaries is visually represented by the fence, and the best scenes are the ones between Bruno and Shmuel as they struggle to understand the horrors of the world they’re in (although there’s also an incredibly tense dinner scene that is perfectly played and kept my whole class silent all the way through). It’s a good film, but it’s not as extraordinary as it thinks it is.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on IMDb