The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) – Pernicious Death Camp Teatime Drama…
It would take a vastly superior director than Mark Herman (he of weighty dramas such as “Blame it on the Bell Boy” and “Brassed Off”) to make this one fly – a tale of a lonely eight-year-old boy who makes friends through the fence of a Nazi death camp with a young Jewish lad, the boy in the striped pyjamas of the title.
As it is, this film adaptation of John Boyne’s popular but controversial book is directed by Mark Herman, and the result is a flaccid, watery, far-fetched wannabe fable that borders on the offensive in it’s attitude and message.
I think these days anyone approaching a new project about the Holocaust needs to think very carefully about their motivations and what they can actually add to the countless films, books and documentaries on the subject. Will this project give the audience a fresh perspective or help them understand it in a new way? Or will this project look like a desperate grasp at respectability and some Awards? After all, we know how much the Academy loves a good deathcamp drama…
It’s World War II – our young hero Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is happy in his life in Berlin; his Dad, Ralph (David Thewlis) is an SS Officer who’s clearly doing alright for a few Marks given the size of the house Bruno has to run around playing soldier with his mates.
Ralf is given a promotion, which means he has to take his family – Bruno, his beautiful wife Elsa (Vera Farmiga), and daughter Greta (Amber Beattie) away to the countryside, to live in a sinister concrete house in the woods. Bruno is not impressed, although his curiosity is piqued by the “farm” he can see from his bedroom window – perhaps there might be some children to play with after all?
The lonely Bruno is confined to the front yard of the house, where all he can do is play with his ball, make a swing, watch his sister flirt with Kotler (Rupert Friend), a young, arrogant model Aryan who works for their father.
Of course, boarding up Bruno’s window so he can’t see the farm anymore, and making a big secret of the back yard is catnip to a bored eight year old boy, especially in a film like this, where the early stages of Bruno’s life in his new house are shot and portrayed like a new glossy adaptation of “The Secret Garden”.
Bruno is also curious about the chimneys he can see, and the funny smell coming from them – an attempt to stand up on his swing causes him to fall flat on his face, but is patched up by the family’s servant-slave Pavel (David Hayman), a kindly aging Jewish doctor who is reduced to peeling potatoes for the new residents.
Finally Bruno makes it over to the fence of the farm – which turns out to be curiously electrified – where he meets the skinny, ragged and scared Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who turns out to be the same age as Bruno, and a tentative friendship strikes up through the wires.
From here on it’s all the usual twists and turns you might expect – Bruno sneaking food out to the starving Shmuel; Ralf acting all cagey every time he’s asked an awkward question about farms, people in striped pyjamas and chimneys; Ralf also acting like the villain in a Scooby Doo cartoon every time he goes off to work – “Excuse me – I need to attend to some……..business.”; the brutal and harsh Kotler having a subversive in his family, etc, etc.
Where the film completely falls down is in tone, perspective, and execution – pretty important areas when trying to approach a painful subject from a different angle.
There are moments, such as when Bruno is running through the woods, and a couple of POV shots here and there, when the film truly attempts to see the world through a child’s eyes. However, these moments are few and far between, and Herman seems to be confused – telling a story from a child’s perspective doesn’t mean just having child actors on the screen most of the time.
Consider this film in comparison to another film from 2008, Garth Jennings’ “Son of Rambow”, which truly attempts to show the world from a child’s perspective – the enlarging of scenery to make things seem massive; turning a school’s Sixth Form block into a decadent club where the older kids sniff smelly erasers and shoot coke & pop rocks. This absorbing approach completely took the viewer into the child’s world and made the story far more believable because of it.
Any kind of fable-like aspect of the story is completely lost due to the flat, by-the-numbers direction, and glossy but uninspired cinematography that makes the whole film look like a made for TV effort; a more talented director might have made something out of the set up or the location. As another example, look at how skilfully Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” counterpoints a child’s fantasy world with the true horrors of war to make them seem interchangeable, to stunning and moving effect.
Perhaps the main problem of the film – and I’ll need to read the book to see if it’s as flawed & inherently bad as the adaptation – is that it just doesn’t make any sense.
OK, so Bruno’s only eight, and when you’re eight you have certain blind spots, and some things go over your head completely. But just because you’re eight, it doesn’t mean you’re daft – Bruno seems like a bright kid, but he is apparently completely oblivious to what’s happening to the Jews in the community around him, and continually asks stupid questions of Shmuel, such as (I’m paraphrasing) – why are you wearing striped pyjamas? Why have you got a number – is it a game? Is this fence for keeping the animals in? Have you got lots of friends over there? And so on, and so on.
He’s a bright kid; he lives in Nazi Germany, in the capital, Berlin; his Dad is an SS Officer; he has friends, who presumably have family and other friends, who presumably must talk about what’s happening all around them – surely not all of this can have passed him by?
The story seems to perpetuate the old myth that the average, normal, decent German of the time simply had no idea what was happening to the Jews, and for Bruno to be this naive, perhaps it would be more believable if he was younger, or mildly retarded.
The ending also leaves a rather strange residue – I’ll try not to spoil it for you; suffice it to say, in a “Tales of the Unexpected”-style reversal of fortunes, it seems to try transferring the horrors of the holocaust onto the family of an SS Extermination Camp Commandant, and somehow expects you to feel sympathy for them AS WELL as absorb the enormity of mankind’s greatest sorrow.
Other irritations include the stiff, earnest, shamelessly Oscar-baiting performances from the cast, all of whom irritatingly speak in plummy English accents. One reviewer pointed out this shouldn’t really make a difference, as real Germans at the time wouldn’t be speaking English in German accents either – except, of course, it does make a difference. It makes the film seem to exist in a parallel universe where the holocaust happened in the Home Counties.
In the whole sorry enterprise there is only one moment approaching art – a quite startling image of a gas-masked soldier pouring Zyklon B through an opening into a gas chamber.
Apart from the final scenes, the rest of the film is Schindler-lite, a rather old fashioned and polite tale which attempts to dilute the Nazi’s mass slaughter of millions of Jews into an inoffensive family film, and perhaps pick up a few awards along the way. Absolutely despicable nonsense, only slightly less reprehensible than Holocaust denial.