The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)


Based on Irish author John Boyne's critically acclaimed, bestselling, and award-winning young adult novel by the same name and adapted by Brassed Off writer/director Mark Herman, the heartrending, dark yet surprisingly innocent fable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas makes its way to the screen this month.

By recounting the horrors of the Holocaust glimpsed through the eyes of an eight year old boy, it's not unlike director Marc Forster's questionable adaptation of the bestselling Kite Runner or Roberto Benigni's concentration camp comedy Life is Beautiful in making us contemplate the idea of the film both morally and intellectually as well as wondering if it's appropriate for young adult audiences. However, I'd recommend this one above the hero-less, self-important Kite Runner yet not as much as Benigni's solid venture about the importance of human imagination.

The type of work that marches its way towards its predictable yet nonetheless absolutely devastating ending that is hinted at cinematically throughout the picture in the composition of numerous shots by the wondrous, lush cinematography of Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition, 1408, and Breaking and Entering), Pajamas is a film that provokes, intrigues, upsets, and lingers in your mind long after it ends to such an extent that I'm still processing its triumphs and failures four days after the press screening.

Set in Berlin in the 1940s, Pajamas introduces us to young, adorable newcomer Asa Butterfield who stars as the eight year old Bruno. Content in his reasonably sheltered, innocent surroundings feigning gun battles with his friends, his young world is thrown into upheaval when his father (Harry Potter's David Thewlis), a Nazi officer is forced to move his family to a deserted home in the country. Arguing that being a soldier is about duty instead of choice, Bruno's unhappiness is evident from the start as he's often filmed at low angles, alone in frames and behind vertical structures to make us feel his sense of imprisoned isolation which is intensified considerably after the move into a cold, sharp-edged, architecturally intimidating and somber SS Headquarters.

Puzzled by a view from his bedroom window of what looks to young Bruno to be a large unorthodox farm of pajama-clad residents, he struggles to obey the cryptic wishes of his adamant father and emotional mother (The Departed's Vera Farmiga) in avoiding the place but childhood curiosity and intense loneliness prevail as he journeys past his property line into the unknown.

Of course, by now, viewers have realized that what young Bruno is living near is in fact a concentration camp but due to his parents' decision to try and keep him oblivious to what his powerful father is really in charge of, it takes an extraordinarily long time for our blue eyed tyke to discover the truth. Yet, to be fair, the wonderfully classic and chameleon-like Farmiga whose ability to act with her eyes to such an intense and expressive depth make her disappear into her role, also has trouble accepting the situation as she's horrified to learn that the "labor camp" is really part of the ghastly "final solution" or death chambers conceived by the Nazi Party.

Further complicating matters is Bruno's new acquaintanceship with a boy on the other side of the fence-- the young, malnourished and "pajama-clad," head-shaven Shmuel (a wonderfully mature Jack Scanlon). Regularly visiting his new friend in secret to try and share food or toys as best he can, Bruno and Shmuel seem to represent that all too vital realization that as producer David Heyman explained in the press notes, "children have the potential and the ability to overcome differences in culture and identity; that people ultimately can get along if they're not encouraged to hate; that governments, institutions and the media can and do cultivate conflict and distrust-- these are timely ideas with universal relevance and I think this story makes them accessible to anyone."

While this is indeed the case as Heyman and other critics have pointed out that the story-- despite being set in World War II-- has allusions to other conflicts involving genocide and war in places as diverse as Palestine and Israel to Iraq, Darfur and Rwanda, the attempt to make a fictitious fable about the Holocaust is extremely dicey. Although some critics have panned the film on the very premise alone, arguing that the movie trivializes the conflict or as author John Boyne noted in his press release quotation of the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, "if you weren't there, don't write about it," others have applauded its courage.

I'm on the fence-- initially I feared it would be overly sentimental and at times, things seemed a bit too hard to believe, including as the filmmakers note the obvious factual error that a majority of the children brought to camps were immediately put to death, there was always an agonizing sense that we knew the film would only be able to end one particular way. While it does involve one trick that begins to reveal itself about midway through-- as hinted at in a few choice shots when Bruno notices his older sister's dolls shoved nude in the basement and other obvious uses of foreshadowing--the ending is extraordinarily hard-to-stomach on numerous counts involving not just personal moral anguish about the inhumanity of man but also a sinking question about manipulation and the idea that had a certain character not perished, would we have felt kicked so hard?

And although I'm not a parent, I do feel that it's always important to introduce children to history and feel that we must learn from the mistakes of the past indeed. Yet, I think I'd probably prefer to educate them similarly to the way my parents did which was first with fact (such as urging me to read The Diary of Anne Frank and sitting alongside my brother and me as we watched Schindler's List in the theatre) before complicating things with fiction or more precisely, sharing the point-of-view of those who were horrifically treated in facts before looking at it from the other side in fiction.

Still, this being said, Pajamas is far from a trivial or sentimental work, despite its easy dismissal as such by some facets of the media. Instead, it's a thoughtful, contemplative and well-intentioned work that boasts exceptional craftsmanship by its cinematographer and 2-time Oscar winning composer James Horner as well as a stunning supporting turn by Vera Farmiga.

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