The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ***1/2
Directed by Mark Herman
Written by Mark Herman, based on the novel by John Boyne
Asa Butterfield as Bruno
David Thewlis as Father
Vera Farmiga as Mother
Jack Scanlon as Shmuel
David Hayman as Pavel
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.
The faults that are clearly apparent throughout "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" did not make themselves known to me until well after the credits rolled, which I gave it some serious thought. I tried very hard to not let this ruin my overall experience of the film while watching it, because my direct reaction to it at the end was highly disturbing and extremely emotional. The clear manipulations did eventually become clear, but its impossible not to become invested into these characters, and once the flaws of the film are discovered its important to remember how it felt during the film experience, and not later.
That being said, the feeling of dread the film presents is awaited once the topic of the film is introduced: the Holocaust. Taking place from a German point of view, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" begins with young Bruno playing around Berlin with his friends, but soon learns from his soldier father and doting mother that they will be moving to the countryside as Father got a promotion. Bruno is none too happy about the location change, and once the family arrives in the country, he is struck with boredom. Isolated, Bruno picks the room with a view, and is eager to play with the "funny looking" children on the farm across the way. Of course it is not a farm, but a camp, and to solve the problem Father and Mother board up the window, and forbid Bruno from going into the back of the house. To make matters worse, Father arranges for a tutor to come a few days a week to teach Bruno, and his Hitler-loving sister, but instead of teaching educational practices and allowing Bruno to enjoy fiction adventure stories, the tutor teaches them about current events related to Hitler. Eventually, Bruno sneaks into the back of the house, and finds the camp. Sitting in the back is a young Jewish boy named Shmuel, who Bruno wishes to befriend not knowing the political differences between the two. Bruno gives him food and the two quickly become friends, under the suspicious eye of some of Father's subordinates.
During the film I was swept away by the characters and the story. I was drawn into the wonderful innocence of being a child during Bruno's runs in the forest, accompanied by James Horner's beautiful, yet common, musical score. I was struck by the unique and realistic child portrayals of Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon as both Bruno and Shmuel. Asa Butterfield plays Bruno with a wide-eyed innocence, while Jack Scanlon plays Shmuel with a wide eyed apprenhension. Their scenes together are both charming and tragic at the same time, as the two balance each other out. They are two of the best child performances of the year, trailing slightly behind the one in "The Fall." For the two lead adult characters, David Thewlis as Father goes through an extended morality arc to which Thewlis plays with perfection, having the audience want to dislike the character, but also realize his flaws, as he is just another soldier defending his country. As for Vera Farmiga, as the Mother, she gets to play with some more emotion as she begins to wonder the ethics of what her husband does for a living, and what Germany is doing to win the war, and at what cost. The screenplay by director Mark Herman, based on the book by John Boyne, which I have never read, is very well written, constructing several dimensions for nearly every character, even a grandfather who is extremely pro-country. It's just a somewhat beautiful concept for a story, and it transcends the concept of being "yet another Holocaust story" by giving us characters that are people we just want to see and know more of.
I am trying to subtly lead to the third act, which is no doubt the cause of the most controversy and talk, in terms of being too depressing, being too coinciental, or perhaps simply being there for shock value. Without giving anything away, although any intelligent reader/viewer would figure that a film about the Holocaust would not have a happy-go-lucky ending, the film does end on a tragic note. After the film was through, the ending did present a major issue for me. Some would say that the way it ends is against the typical Hollywood way of ending a film, but wouldn't it be Hollywood to end a Holocaust film on a tragic note, especially one that deals with themes of child innocence and friendship? It almost becomes expected, and almost clear from the beginning that once of three things could possibly happen to these characters in the end-and it ends up being one of them. For reasons to like the end, its clear the film goes through a massive morality arc, and perhaps its not Bruno who is the main character, but the Father, who is the one that sets these events into motion by his loyality to a mass murderer. The wonderful thing about this film is that it does give a human side to the Germans, and doesn't simply become a tale about the woe of Jewish race during the time. This is what makes the ending that much more tragic.
But during the film, I was on the edge of my seat, invested into the lives of these characters. For me, the third act became a very intense, gripping, and emotional experience, and not the possibly manipulative experience that I somewhat considered it to be later on. I have a feeling people will be swept away by these characters, and find themselves strongly emotionally invested to the point where I can forgive the film of its flaws simply because its well made, and packs quite the sucker punch. There is no way one can leave this film without it having some kind of effect on them. And this is all because of several aspects: the terrific performances, the mutli-layered characters in the screenplay, and just simply because of human emotion. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is simply a beautiful and highly moving film experience.