The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of those good, but not great, movies that you wish you liked more than you actually do. It tackles a deadly serious subject—the Holocaust, and the moral complicity of those who made it happen—from a relatively fresh angle, and it is made with a certain degree of skill. At times, it is even quite powerful. And yet there is something about it that doesn't quite work.

The story is told from the point of view of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an eight-year-old boy whose Father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi officer who has just received a promotion, and must therefore take his family to a new home in "the countryside." This home, built in the Bauhaus style, turns out to be a cold, grey mansion that lacks the color and vitality of the family's previous home in Berlin; from Bruno's point of view, one might even call it a prison, but on a strictly metaphorical level.

Asa Butterfield as Bruno

Asa Butterfield as Bruno

Bruno, for his part, looks out his bedroom window and sees a much more literal sort of prison—that is, a concentration camp—in the distance, but assumes it is a "farm" because he simply doesn't know any better. He does wonder, though, why all the farmers wear striped pajamas. Eventually, against his parents' wishes, Bruno sneaks away and comes to a tall, electric, barbed-wire fence, and on the other side of this fence he sees—and befriends—a Jewish boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who also wears these "pajamas."

The film, adapted by writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) from the book by John Boyne, does an admirable job of encouraging us to see the story from Bruno's childlike perspective. An opening title quotes British poet John Betjeman to the effect that "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows," and the film encourages us to see Berlin, the countryside and the family that travels between them from this basically innocent point of view.

For one thing, despite the fact that most of the characters are German, they are all played by Brits, or by actors faking British accents. There is no attempt here, as there is in some English-language films about the Holocaust, to make the characters sound German, or "other"; instead, we are naturally inclined to identify and sympathize with these people. What's more, Bruno's father is played by Thewlis, an actor who has played his share of villains but may be best-known now as Remus Lupin, the friendly grown-up he plays in the Harry Potter series.

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David Thewlis as Bruno's father

David Thewlis as Bruno's father

Here, he seems similarly positive, at first. It is only as we get to know his character that we see the uniform, and then the new home, and then the camp, and then the black clouds coming from the camp's furnaces—and we begin to wonder just how "involved" he is in the evil that is taking place there. Even when the father tells his son that some people aren't "really" people, we find ourselves experiencing the sort of denial we imagine Bruno would experience if he were ever to discover what his father was really up to. Surely this seemingly nice man couldn't be involved in such a horrific atrocity—could he?

If Bruno's father represents the banal, workmanlike form of evil that Hannah Arendt wrote about, then one of the other Nazis who is often seen about the house, Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend), represents evil in its more openly sinister form. He behaves nicely to Bruno's family—because they are, after all, the wife and children of his superior officer—but thinks nothing of barking orders at the Jewish prisoners in a nasty tone of voice, and worse, even when the children are around. And because he is young and handsome, he also attracts the eye of Bruno's older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), who begins putting Nazi posters on her bedroom wall and, to appear more grown-up, abandons her dolls in what looks, at first glance, like a pile of corpses—one of the film's more startling and effective images, suggesting the ways that even a child like Gretel can participate in a larger evil without realizing or intending it.

Vera Farmiga as Bruno's mother

Vera Farmiga as Bruno's mother

Bruno and Gretel are also subjected to a more formal sort of indoctrination in the form of Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), a tutor whose lessons are filled with Nazi, racist propaganda. Ever the willing student, Gretel accepts what she is taught, but Bruno is too bored to pay attention. He does not object out of any sort of moral principle; he would simply much rather read adventure stories and play at being a soldier.

Throughout the film, despite these influences, Bruno keeps his innocence, and this leads to some strikingly poignant moments. The best, by far, comes when Bruno skins his knee and Pavel (David Hayman), the Jewish prisoner who peels the house's potatoes, tends to the wound. Bruno insists that the wound is very bad, and Pavel insists it is not. Gradually you realize Pavel must have been a doctor before he was sent to the concentration camp—but even though you can see this revelation coming, the actual dialogue between the two characters, and the way Bruno must have hurt Pavel when he thought he was being friendly, and the way Pavel sees past the pain and responds to Bruno as gracefully as he can, is a genuine tear-jerker.

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The bulk of the movie, however, revolves around Bruno's friendship with Shmuel, the striped-pajama boy on the other side of the electric fence. And here the movie falters. Bruno pays Shmuel many visits, yet somehow never figures out what is going on within the camp itself. Their meetings are obscured by a pile of stuff that sits near the fence and blocks the view of those on the inside, and no guards ever seem to walk around the perimeter or catch the boys in the middle of their games, their conversations, and their exchanges of food. This is all incredibly unrealistic, but on a certain level, we can almost forgive it, if we see the film as a "fable"—not unlike, say, Life Is Beautiful, which similarly concerned a boy who is shielded from the truth of the Holocaust and who similarly believes it is nothing but a game.

Bruno befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy in a concentration camp

Bruno befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy in a concentration camp

The problem is, the film gets increasingly serious as it goes, and it clearly wants to break our hearts if it can. But the very fact that it is a "fable" and somewhat divorced from reality robs these scenes of their intended devastating power—or it did for me, at any rate. Where the filmmakers were clearly aiming for suspense, I ultimately found myself accepting and even demanding the inevitable, simply because there are only so many ways a "fable" like this can end once certain elements are in place.

And after it was all over, I wasn't entirely sure that this fable had done what it was supposed to do. Say what you like about Life Is Beautiful, but the film is not only about acts of denial and self-deception, it actually is an act of denial and self-deception because the characters—and the narrator—never address certain messy truths. That makes it an interesting film to discuss long after the credits have rolled. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, however, is ultimately about the dawning of the truth—the "dark hour of reason" alluded to at the beginning—but it's kind of hard to make that point when you're asking the audience to suspend its disbelief.

There is still plenty to chew on here, though. By making the Nazis seem so "normal," the film prompts us to ask what evil we might be tolerating in our own society simply because it stays hidden and/or because it seems like the normal, accepted thing to do. It prompts us to be vigilant in the raising of our children. And it prompts us to admit, however sadly, that childlike innocence is not sufficient in a world like ours—that we need to be wise as serpents even as we remain innocent as doves.

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Our friends at Heartland Film Festival have created an educational discussion guide for youth, meant to be used after watching the film and reading the book. Click here.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How does seeing the story from Bruno's eight-year-old point of view affect the way you perceive the characters, such as his father? What do we see that is not shown from Bruno's point of view? Why does the film let us see these things? Why does the film not let us see other things?
  2. Who is "innocent" in this film? Anyone? Is there a difference between ignorance and innocence? How do different characters deal with their dawning awareness of what is happening at the concentration camp?
  3. Is innocence always a good thing? How are various characters affected by evil because they are too "innocent" to know better? (See, e.g., the way Gretel becomes smitten with the Nazi lieutenant who works at their house.)
  4. When is knowledge preferable to innocence? How do we become, as Jesus said, wise as serpents while remaining innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16)?
  5. Have you had to "unlearn" anything that you were taught when you were young, comparable to the prejudices that Bruno's father and tutor try to teach him? How did you deal with the knowledge that what you were taught was wrong? How did this affect the way you perceived your parents and teachers?
  6. Bruno's grandmother says that Bruno's father always wanted to be a soldier, and Bruno himself is seen playing at "war" with his friends in Berlin. Is this a dangerous impulse? Is it a tolerable form of childlike fantasy? Is it a problem that Bruno's father became a soldier, period, or that he was assigned to a particular task?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust, including scenes of Jewish prisoners, young and old, being beaten, verbally abused, forced to strip, and killed. The main character's parents also get into some pretty strong arguments when his mother learns what his father is doing at the concentration camp (which is never named in the film, but is identified as Auschwitz in the book on which the film is based).

What other Christian critics are saying:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
 
(14 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Not Rated (for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust)
Genre
Directed By
Mark Herman
Run Time
1 hour 34 minutes
Cast
Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Rupert Friend, Zac Mattoon O'Brien
Theatre Release
November 28, 2008 by Miramax Films
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