Simon Dillon reviews the film

Photo: David Lukacs/Miramax Films
Photo: David Lukacs/Miramax Films

Regular readers of my articles will know that I am not one for patronising children. There are those who believe that dark subject matter like the Holocaust should not trouble young minds, but I could not disagree more. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on the novel by John Boyne (which I must confess I haven't read), is a remarkable, shocking, and moving story that succeeds brilliantly in teaching about this monumental act of evil to those who have yet to learn of it.

It's a simple enough tale, about Bruno, the eight year old son of an SS commandant, who has to move to the country with his mother and elder sister Gretel when his father is put in charge of "something very important for the war". Although strictly forbidden to explore the woods beyond his back garden, Bruno ventures forth one day and comes to the electrified barb wire of what he believes is a farm where the workers wear pyjamas. Here he meets Schmuel, a Jewish boy whom he befriends. He begins to visit him regularly, bringing him gifts of food and playing games. But as the horrible truth slowly begins to reveal itself, Bruno finds himself asking some very difficult questions.

It is here that certain flaws in the story become impossible to ignore. For instance, although this film has a measure of historical accuracy, there would have been no way the relationship between Schmuel and Bruno would have been possible, as children taken to death camps were not kept as workers but killed immediately. Other plot contrivances stretch credibility to breaking point, but having said that disbelief is willingly suspended provided the story is viewed as a fable, rather than an historically accurate piece. For the ending alone, this is a story worth suspending disbelief for, but more on that later.

Viewed with adult knowledge, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is excruciatingly painful to watch. The innocent eyes through which Bruno sees the camp, and the way he tries to make absurd rationalisations about the madness around him is agonising. Yet because he is only eight, his age protects him from the anti-Semitic indoctrinations of his father, grandfather, the other soldiers and his tutor. One particularly heartbreaking moment sees Bruno invite Schmuel to one day come and play at his house in Berlin "when everyone has stopped being angry with each other". Unfortunately, his elder sister Gretel is too old to be innocent. She puts away her dolls and laps up the Nazi propaganda with a truly chilling zeal.

The performances are all excellent, once one gets past the fact that the cast all speak with impeccable British accents. Both boys are particularly brilliant; Asa Butterfield as Bruno, and Jack Scanlon as Schmuel (in his second superb role this year, following his part in Son of Rambow). David Thewlis is frighteningly believable as Bruno's father and Vera Farmiga is equally believable as Bruno's mother, whose fragile belief in the Nazi cause falls to pieces as she realises exactly what it is her husband is up to. Amber Beattie's Gretel provides a harrowing reminder of just how susceptible the young were to Hitler's propaganda, and incidentally even Bruno suffers in this respect. In one scene he watches a documentary film intended to show that the camp is a nice place where Jews have been relocated. His baffled disbelief when he discovers the horrible truth is truly heartrending.

Technically, the film is well put together, and has a number of nicely subtle touches. For instance, production designer Mark Childs has the family living in a Berlin town house at the beginning, with light brown wooden floors and staircases that are lit beautifully. This is starkly contrasted by the oppressive black stained wood on the floors and stairs of the house in the country - a visually appropriate indication of Bruno's father's new work.

Violence is kept strictly offscreen, but the film oozes with menace, and for that director Mark Herman deserves a great deal of credit in handling the subject matter with such sensitivity. I believe no topic should be off limits for children, provided the treatment is appropriate. Ironically, I would argue that this is more likely to upset adults than children, who would no doubt share Bruno's view of the world to a degree. It is a film that will make a lasting impression on any younger viewers as it will show them at an impressionable age just how absurd racial prejudice and anti-Semitism really is.

Which brings me to the ending - an astonishing finale that manages to be as shocking, powerful and moving as anything in Schindler's List. I will not spoil it except to say that depending on your temperament it is either horribly bleak or a stunningly powerful affirmation of loyalty, friendship and bravery. Personally, I think its both. I left the cinema shaken, but deeply moved. If you have children over the age of about ten, you should definitely take them to see this. Actually, I would even go so far as to say it is your duty to do so, but be prepared for some long discussions afterwards. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.