Goy Meets World
Watching the Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Death Camp Commander's son
When young boys in short pants and sweater vests spread their arms like airplane wings and buzz through charming market squares, you can be certain you're watching a movie about World War II. The filmmakers behind The Boy in the Striped Pajamas don't even give you a courtesy moment to let you figure it out yourself--they cut right to the big fat swastikas flapping on red flags, and the grim occupants of a liquidated ghetto stepping into covered trucks as 8-year old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) brrrrrrms by. He's in a big hurry because there's a party at his parents' Berlin estate: his Nazi high-up father (David Thewlis) has received a promotion, and soon Bruno, his doll-loving sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), and his mother (Vera Farmiga) are all moving to a house in the countryside where Dad and his jackbooted staff can keep on winning the war.
There aren't any kids to play with at their new home, however, and soon Bruno tires of watching Gretel simper over their father's square-jawed assistant (Rupert Friend) and of listening to his jingoistic tutor drone on and on about German history. What does stoke his curiosity, however, is the "farm" a few miles behind the house, the one from where the strange shuffling men in dirty pajamas bring trays of shriveled vegetables to his mother in the morning. One bold afternoon he slips out the back door and finds the perimeter of an electrified fence--and, huddled behind it, a boy his age (Jack Scanlon). Finally, someone to play with.
Holocaust dramas usually run on a tankful of heavy metaphor topped off with a few fumes of history, and up until the halfway point The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is no exception. While Butterfield is a relatively talented young actor, with a Bud Cort-like gravity and saucer eyes that rival Speed Racer's, Bruno's questions about who the farmers are, why they're behind wire, and why those dark clouds churning out of the farm's smokestack smell so bad are less the genuine inquiry of a perplexed child and more the lead-ins for a primer in Shoah 101. The dialogue's stilted, tutorial flavor lowers our expectations for the movie, especially after being lulled into the fantasy of salvation by movies such as Schindler's List. This is a kid's movie, right? Must mean this can only head in one direction--the boys make friends, maybe there's a miraculous rescue for the new best buddy, the commandant dad realizes the error of his ways, and we're spared having to leave the theater with the very idea of children in concentration camps carving a pit in our stomachs.
Suddenly, in the movie's second half, its flabby and didactic narrative quickens--gradually at first, and then with frightening, snowballing speed toward a single scene of such devastating emotional clarity it makes the conclusion sing out in stainless steel terror. What's more, director Mark Herman finds a way to tell his story without leaning on shock footage, keeping his imagery within the letter of PG-13 law by soft-pedaling the content without blunting the horror. When Gretel discards her dolls for pinups of Hitler Youth, Bruno finds the denuded toys in a gigantic pile in the basement, the tangled mountain of their bodies standing in for imagery more familiar to adults. And when the friendship between Bruno and the boy reaches its turning point, Herman finds a way to encapsulate the devastation of Hitler's Final Solution in a balletic handful of shots.
But despite Herman's skill in pulling punches, the result is still shattering. Children may want to see this movie because they've read the young adult novel upon which it's based, and parents may want their children to see this movie because they want them to learn about the Holocaust. But fair warning to both--this movie is the stuff of nightmares for both kids and the parents who love them, and its images and lessons sear into the brain. This movie is not entertainment in the strictest sense of the word. But watching it is as necessary as it is excruciating. Is this movie safe for children? Not really. But then again, neither was the Holocaust.