Film Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Sturdy Holocaust drama focusing on childhood and innocence amidst the horror takes the multi-Oscar-winning <i>Life Is Beautiful</i> to more harrowing and credible extremes. An original but somewhat contrived look at kids bonding across a death camp’s barb

Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas overcomes some tricky hurdles: Its German characters all speak English, its story’s German locations are in fact Hungarian, and its subject of the Holocaust—in spite of the kid angle—is less than fresh or the stuff of entertainment. Yet this handsome production—emitting the nostalgically musty high quality of “Masterpiece Theatre” fare—should attract serious filmgoers above a certain age and with above-average tastes.

Success here has much to do with the fine cast, Herman’s restraint in keeping Nazi and child-dominated movie clichés to a minimum, and a clean, engaging story arc that arches from intriguing to downright gruesome.

When first seen, the family of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is celebrating his father’s (David Thewlis) promotion that will require they move from Berlin to a rural villa. Bruno, an imaginative and adventurous boy, balks at the plan as he’s happy where he is.

Bruno’s grandmother (Sheila Hancock) is also displeased (for reasons that will be later revealed), but his mother (Vera Farmiga) and older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) are game. What Bruno does not know and his mother will soon learn—just as Gretel grows more gung-ho about Nazism—is that the father has been named commandant of a death camp.
Settled into the family’s rustic new villa, the restless Bruno begins to explore. He discovers from afar a supposed “farm” nearby where workers, curiously, wear what seem to be striped pajamas. Bruno soon wanders through the woods to a barbed-wire fence where he befriends eight-year-old Shmuel on the other side. A secret friendship develops, with Bruno stealing food for the young inmate and the two engaging in normal kid conversations and games like checkers.

More or less contemporaneous developments at the villa include handsome but sadistic Lieutenant Kotler’s (Rupert Friend) cruel treatment of the family’s pro tem servant Pavel (David Hayman), periodically borrowed from the camp; Gretel’s increasingly fanatic embrace of Nazism and her growing attraction to Kotler, her father’s adjutant; and the mother’s near-breakdown when she learns the true nature of the camp and her husband’s assignment there.

Not blinded to family problems, the father hires the stern and uninspiring Herr Liszt (Jim Norton) to tutor his son and daughter and, with Bruno growing more unruly, eventually arranges to send his family away. But Bruno, after betraying Shmuel and wanting to make amends, agrees to help him find his father, who has disappeared in what Bruno continues to believe is some sort of farm.

While The Boy in the Striped Pajamas sometimes delivers the dangerously familiar (young Gretel’s Hitler Youth zeal, the handsome blond Kotler’s Nazi barbarity, the whiffs of resistance to the Nazi cause conveyed via depicted and unseen characters, the mother’s denial of the pervasive evil until reality sets in, etc.), the film’s controversial ending takes a hairpin turn in another direction. Farmiga, the lone Yank performing among the Brits, again proves that she’s an actor who must be taken seriously.