Studio: Miramax Films
US Rating: Rated PG-13 For Some Mature Thematic Material Involving the Holocaust
Film Length: 94 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Review Date: March 22, 2009
The Film - out of
The holocaust the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s during World War II, like the slave trade (and murder) of African’s before it – exists as the very worst that humanity is capable of and as the darkest and most disgusting acts in the history of the world. Dark chapters exist aplenty, but surely none as despicable and disgraceful as the 400 years of inhumanity during the slave trade (and beyond) and the systematic execution of the Jewish people. Films have told the tragic stories of World War II and the holocaust in particular before, though none as powerful as Schindler’s List. Now, based on the book of the same name by John Boyne, comes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a unique tale from a child’s perspective, Bruno, the young son of a Nazi commander charged with running a concentration camp.
In the midst of World War II, Bruno and his older sister, along with their mother and housemaid must move from the comfort and luxury of Berlin to the German countryside when their father is given a promotion, though his specific duties are not known by his family. Their home in the peaceful rural area is secluded and quiet. Bruno has left behind his friends and lives in the big house with a growing sense of boredom. He is forbidden from venturing to the area behind the house where they now live, and while he can see the ‘farm’ beyond the tree line from his bedroom window, he cannot explore back there as all young boys would want to.
But Bruno allows his curiosity to get the better of him and ventures beyond his allowed play area and towards the ‘farm’ buildings he could see from his room and that he has seen smoke rising from. There he meets a boy in ‘striped pajamas’ behind barbed wire, with a shaved head – hungry, sullen and innocent. They strike up a friendship – the boy imprisoned and imperiled for simply being a Jew and the boy who is unwittingly entwined on the side of the captors; a beneficiary of the slaves made out of the Jews and of the luxury afforded his Nazi father – a father perpetrating the very evil the young boys find themselves trying to understand.
The film opens with a quote by John Betjemen, a quote that sums the experience you will share with the innocent young boys at the heart of the story. It says that “Childhood is measured by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows”. This poignant quote should have become the shadow under which the events of the film took place as an unlikely friendship is born out of the most tragic of situations, but it ends up serving as more that that; as a summary of the whole film. The boy’s initial obliviousness and naivete of the circumstances that his new found friend is the victim of is ripe with the innocence of such youth as young Bruno idolizes his successful and important father. At this time, Germany is trembling with nationalism run amok – a seething sense of pride and power that has seeped into the consciousness and essence of Germany – its institutions, teachers, families and youth all, as evidenced by Bruno’s sister, Gretel, who develops a crush on a young officer under her father and who quickly puts away the dolls and things of her innocence in favor of Hitler posters and other propaganda materials. Bruno is too young to understand what is happening or to care much about his tutors railings against the Jews and the blame placed upon all Jews for Germany’s historic woes. But it surrounds him nonetheless.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an interesting watch and the performances are quite good. Asa Butterfield plays Bruno with a young boy’s inexperience, vulnerability and curiousness very well. Shmuel, the young Jewish boy he meets at the camp is played by Jack Scanlon. Together, these two young actors are racked with the innocence of boys that age. They are resistant of dramatizing moments that work better simple and straight and work very well together as they muddle through the confusion of where they are; on different sides of a war they don’t understand and should never have to. As Bruno’s mother and father are Vera Farmiga and the superb David Thewlis. Vera plays quite a difficult role here, falling into an ever deeper sense of despair and disillusionment at what her husband does in the name of Germany. Thewlis is solid as the man who justifies to himself (and occasionally to his wife) the deeds he undertakes. He is dispassionate about Jews and passionate about family – a duality that we as an audience are never asked to rectify as he himself is never asked to do, until late in the story.
Where The Boy in the Striped Pajamas suffers in translation from the novel, is keeping a view of the atrocities (or rather lack of) from strictly Bruno’s viewpoint. Director Mark Herman, who adapted the novel for the screen, forever shields Bruno from a true revelation of what is happening to the prisoners and that is in keeping with the story, but by giving us only Bruno’s perspective throughout the film, Herman impedes the emotional wallop of the film until the very end. How much more dramatic and bold would this film have been to juxtapose the true evil of what Bruno’s father did, and approved of, with the simplicity and dangerous curiosity of the young boy.
Herman also keeps the shots in close-ups, shrinking the world that we see to just that of Bruno’s and opening up his shots on rare occurrences only. From this perspective, the horror of what surrounds Bruno is just out of reach though it does make its way inside his family home on a couple of occasions.
All in all, there is much to appreciate in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; solid performances, an engaging story and an appropriate, restrained score by Academy Award winning composer James Horner. But the slow pace is just a little too slow and the narrow view of the war from Bruno’s perspective just a little too narrow to allow the drama and impact to be fully realized.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The image quality suits the story just fine with drained and somewhat drab 1940’s colors pervading the production. The green of the forest and blue of the skies around Bruno’s family home is the brightest, warmest element of the color palette (beyond the warm wood colors of the family home in Berlin). A clean transfer throughout free from blemishes or excess effects of processing. This isn’t a film that will be a showcase for video quality but what Miramax presents us with is just fine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound audio is very front focused, filled with the dialogue and sparse sounds of a quiet countryside. The surrounds receive the occasional sounds of the forest and wind as Bruno playfully runs through the trees as an airplane. Horner’s subtle, piano driven score also reaches the surrounds occasionally and overall this audio works perfectly for the film.
Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Writer/Director Mark Herman and Author John Boyne – Five deleted scenes with insightful optional commentary – each work and would have contributed something good to the final cut if included – but the reasons for their cutting make sense.
Friendship Beyond the Fence Featurette – (20:29) – A rather good making of that helps increase appreciation for the final film and even addresses my main concern with the nature and perspective of the film itself. I recommend watching this, especially if your initial impression of the film (and the issues with it) mirror mine.
Feature Commentary by Writer/Director Mark Herman and Author John Boyne – An interesting, often subdued commentary track that’s worth listening to. It becomes clear occasionally that the director did not get the final word in every instance of the final cut – but the author and director/writer share a much aligned perspective on the material.
Sneak Peaks - Trailers
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a solid production but lacks in presenting the overwhelming drama of both the traumatic mistreatment and murder of Jews in the camps and of the dark shadow that exists within the Bruno home. The brewing conflict within Bruno about what he feels for the father he adores and the trouble he has resolving what he begins to understand about him is at the core of the film and the strongest element.. But somehow the entire experience doesn’t come together as strong as the subject matter itself provides.