Monday, 12 October 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Despite its come-on title, this British film is, I think, totally unsuitable viewing for young children. Rather it is a devastating addition to those films that deal with the Holocaust, personalised here through the eyes of an eight-year old boy. Based on a novel by John Boyne, writer-director Mark Herman who has some wonderful 'small' films to his credit such as "Brassed Off" and "Little Voice" here marries the loss of childish innocence with the evil that men do, in a way that leaves the viewer in no doubt concerning the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The main protagonist, Bruno, is the son of a career army officer, played by David Thewlis. Bruno must move from his beloved home in Berlin and away from his playmates, when his father is placed in charge of a concentration camp in an isolated country setting. Thewlis considers this a tremendous career opportunity and revels in his new-found powers, while attempting to keep the details of his actual brief from his sensitive wife (American actress Vera Farmiga finding a perfect British accent) and his children. From his bedroom window, Bruno can see what he takes to be a farm, where strangely all of the farmers wear striped pyjamas, as does the family's kitchen help who was once a doctor, and where he hopes to find new friends. Although he is forbidden to 'explore' this area, his childish curiosity takes him to the perimeter with its electrified fence and -- on the other side -- eight-year old Shmuel, shaven-headed and scrawny. As a friendship develops between the two boys, Bruno struggles to understand why his friend is always ravenously hungry and why he can not come out to play. That a young boy would probably not have lasted in the camps for any length of time is irrelevant to the fable that is being played out here.

The story of Bruno's new life is multilayered and we recoil in horror as his new tutor tries to indoctrinate the boy and his older sister into the Nazi version of history, which is reinforced by their father's and his staff's venomous outbursts against all Jews. His sister is won over by the new ideals and puts away her childish pursuits, especially when she develops a crush on one of her father's aides. However the pile of naked dolls that Bruno discovers in their cellar are too numerous to be hers alone. There is also a side-strand concerning Thewlis' parents, played by Richard Johnson and, in a very brief cameo, Sheila Hancock. The father is ever so proud of his son's authority, but the mother wants no part of it. Gradually Farmiga begins to understand why there is always a strange odour in the air from the distant chimneys and in disgust begs Thewlis to let her take the children away. I have never been terribly fond of him as an actor, but his is perfect casting here of the weakling who relishes the chance to abuse his power.

Both of the young actors, Asa Butterfield as Bruno and particularly Jack Scanlon as Shmuel are superb. Bruno is all childish wonder as opposed to Shmuel's resigned composure. When Bruno decides to dig under the wire to enter the 'farm' to prove his friendship by helping Shmuel look for his father who has 'gone missing', the stage is set for the chilling denouement. Powerful stuff, but ever so hard to take, resulting in a movie that would be even more painful to watch a second time.
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