This review of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas appeared in the Australian Jewish News on April 30, 2009.
Directed by Mark Herman
Written by John Boyne and Mark Herman, based on Boyne’s novel
Starring Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie and Jack Scanlon
With The Reader still playing in Australian cinemas and both Defiance and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas now opening, we have reached an unprecedented moment: no less than three Holocaust-themed films will be screening at the same time. No, it’s not in honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day, just pure coincidence.
Unlike Defiance – based on a true story, and very much like The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is fictional, and tells its Holocaust story from the perspective of Germans. Indeed “Pyjamas” is really about how certain Germans experience the Holocaust rather than about the Jewish tragedy.
The Boy in Striped Pyjamas comes from a popular children’s book by Irish writer John Boyne and was adapted by Boyne and British director Mark Herman (Hope Springs, Purely Belter and Brassed Off). The story is set in Germany (and presumably Poland) during the war; the central character is eight year old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father (David Thewlis) is an SS commander who has been given a promotion to manage a concentration camp. Thus the family, including Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) and sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) move from an enjoyable life in Berlin to an isolated concrete house set in a forest.
In the distance is what young Bruno believes is a farm filled with happy farmers. A true innocent abroad, in search of companionship, one day Bruno ventures there and befriends another eight year old – Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who wears striped pyjamas. Bruno never fully grasps Shmuel’s situation, at first believing that the number on Shmuel’s shirt to be part of an elaborate game and that the barbed wire that separates them is to “keep the animals in”.
As the story gradually unfolds, Bruno learns that the family’s inmate servant was once a doctor and watches how the German soldiers savagely beat the Jews who help at the house. As Bruno’s sister Gretel slowly becomes a devoted Nazi youth, his mother – who has blithely avoided worrying about her husband’s occupation until then – is soon forced to face the truth. The deteriorating family dynamics are neatly written and exquisitely understated. The great achievement of the film – and the book on which it is based – is in maintaining the perspective of the innocent eight year old. This the film does, due to a carefully modulated script and excellent performances.
Nevertheless, the film is full of incongruencies. All of the characters speak in English with an educated upper class British accent (including Farmiga, who is American). This may provide consistency, but hides some essential differences: surely Shmuel’s first language would be Yiddish, and Bruno’s communication with him would be halting at best, not the fluent and idiosyncratic conversations which they hold. The Nazi propaganda film supposedly shot in Bruno’s father’s camp was indeed shot at Theresienstadt (in what is now the Czech Republic). But above all, how many eight year old boys survived for more than a day in concentration camps? Surely very few did. This approach is thus more Life is Beautiful fable than realist.
The film takes the perspective of Bruno and his family, so the Jews who appear in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are all two dimensional at best – only Shmuel and the household servant are given any personality at all. And even Shmuel has bad teeth and a constantly dirty face – in comparison to Bruno’s immaculate appearance. The film enters very suspect territory towards the end (which I will not reveal, but is widely known as the book has been a best-seller in this country) when we most sympathise not with the degraded, dirty and dying masses of Jews, but with the German family and in particular Bruno, who turns into a victim. How can this be? At what astonishing moment did the Holocaust turn from a Jewish tragedy into an historical event where Aryan Germans were the victims?
Viewers beware: the film’s ending is more explicit than the book’s, and drops the epilogue. Although it is a film about young children, this is by no means a film for them: the “M” (“mature audiences”) rating is well-deserved.