We watched “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” a 2008 film based on John Boyne’s novel for young adults.
This movie is most effective at portraying people who can rationalize almost any behavior on the grounds that it is their duty to some entity that they perceive as being larger and more important than any individual. One doesn’t have to look too far to find places to apply this model.
The story has to do with an eight-year-old boy, Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield, whose father is a highly placed officer in the German army during World War II. The boy and his teenaged sister admire their father’s stature without thinking about the nature of the regime that gave it to him. As the movie opens, the father, played by David Thewlis, informs his family that he has a new assignment that will force them to leave their opulent house in Berlin and move to “the country.” The “country” home turns out to be a stark mansion located within eyeshot of a concentration camp – a fact the father tries to hide from his children, and particularly Bruno.
But Bruno, being an eight-year-old boy with fantasies about exploring, is curious about what he thinks is a farm beyond the barbed-wire fence he first sees from the window of his room. Disregarding his mother’s instructions, he wanders through the woods until he reaches the fence, and there he makes friends with one of the inmates, Shmuel. Shmuel, also eight years old, disabuses Bruno of the idea that the camp is a farm, but Shmuel does not understand why he and his family are in the camp or why some of his relatives go off with “work crews” and never return. What Bruno does gradually learn is that he is supposed to hate Jews, but that Shmuel, a Jew, does not seem to him an enemy. One can’t discuss the outcome of their friendship without spoiling the experience of seeing this film for the first time.
Appreciating this film requires some suspension of credibility. We are to believe, for example, that Bruno’s mother does not know until she has moved to “the country” and lived there for some time exactly what takes place in the camp her husband oversees – that Jews and presumably others who were distasteful to the Nazis are gassed and their bodies incinerated. We are also to believe that Bruno and Shmuel can carry on a friendship through the camp fence, meeting there daily in broad daylight, even playing checkers, without being discovered.
Despite those issues, this movie delivers its message with a wallop. Thewlis, and Vera Farmiga as the mother, give chilling portrayals of the impact Naziism had on the inner selves of individual men and women. Both boys are also very effective in their roles; Jack Scanlon is a heartbreaker.