Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Starring Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon. Written and directed by Mark Herman, based on John Boyneís novel. Rated PG-13.
Life Isnít Beautiful

Keep away from this curdled Holocaust weeper for kids.


Some people say that the Holocaust shouldnít be the subject of any fictional work. The profundity and scale of the evil are too big for any storytelling medium to capture, and any attempt at doing so only trivializes the genocide, so the argument goes. This may be true, though I think the world would be a poorer place without Schindlerís List or Maus, to name two obvious examples. Nevertheless, Iím brought up short when confronted by a warm-and-fuzzy kid-friendly Holocaust movie like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Itís tame enough to warrant a PG-13 rating, but thatís one of the major reasons I found it so offensive.
Based on John Boyneís novel, the film is about a German boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) growing up in Berlin during World War II. His parents remove him and his older sister (Amber Beattie) to the countryside to keep them safe from the bombings, but theyíre also relocating because his father (David Thewlis) has been promoted to the post of commandant of a concentration camp. Bruno is kept from the gory details of Papaís new job, but his exploration of the farmland around his house takes him to the edge of the camp anyway, where he meets a boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) on the other side of the barbed wire. Too young to fully understand their situation, the boys become friends.
For some reason, Bruno and Shmuelís repeated encounters are never interrupted by guards, and theyíre free to play checkers, toss a ball back and forth, or share food. As much as this strains credibility, the rest of the movie breaks it completely. Writer-director Mark Herman, the brutally simplistic British filmmaker who did Little Voice and Brassed Off, underlines all the emotional beats in the story in the crudest and most ham-handed terms. He also brings out the worst in composer James Newton Howard, whose polished, opulent orchestral score is horrendously inappropriate to the setting. The same goes for Hermanís bewildering strategy of giving this picture a sun-dappled beauty while leaving out the filth and squalor of the Final Solution. The directorís clearly trying to avoid an R rating so that kids will be able to see the film, but he omits so much of the violence that he winds up prettifying the Holocaust. Incredibly, thereís even worse: Papa and his lieutenant (Rupert Friend) come off as nothing but cardboard villains ó the fault of the actors as much as the DELETE ó which fatally undermines the movieís message that weíre all humans and weíre all the same when the labels are taken away.
This sort of story can be done well. Guillermo del Toroís Panís Labyrinth was a delicate kidsí fable that acknowledged real evil in the world. Thatís a useless comparison for this movie, though. A better one would be Hoganís Heroes, which bears about the same relationship to the Nazi regime as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does. This movie aims for crushing tragedy and misses so badly that it makes us yearn for the dismissive presence of Colonel Klink.

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