As I watched the film, directed by David Herman ("Brassed Off", "Little Voice") and co-produced by the BBC, I was carried along by the story, which is impossibly idealized. But the filmmakers do a clever thing and mask the idealization through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy, who doesn't, and probably couldn't, know the truth. But the more I think about it, is this a good thing? And who is the audience for this film?
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is a pretty typical 8-year-old boy. He enjoys playing with his friends and finds the family's huge Berlin house to be fertile for his imagination; Bruno and his friends run through the hallways and up and down the staircase with abandon. Bruno's mom (Vera Farmiga, "The Departed", "Breaking and Entering") and dad (David Thewlis, the "Harry Potter" films) sit their children down and tell them about Father's new promotion, a promotion which means they must move to a new house in the country. Father is a German officer and his promotion has been to run a Concentration Camp. But Bruno and his older sister don't know this and they cautiously roam through the new house. Bruno spots a "farm" from his bedroom window and inquires about the "funny people" wearing striped pajamas. Mama is confused, but soon realizes what he has seen and quickly boards up his bedroom window. Desperate for some adventure, Bruno eventually sneaks into the back garden and further, moving through the lush plants and overgrown grass until he comes to the electrified fence surrounding the "farm". There, he spots a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) sitting on the other side of the fence, staring into his hands, and they talk. A friendship quickly blooms leading Bruno to try to get away everyday and sneak food to his new friend.
As Bruno runs through the fields, the director seems to have placed a filter on the lens to capture as much dappled sunlight as possible. This stretches the believability of the story quite a bit. But just as I felt myself about to switch off, I realized, or remembered that Bruno is only eight. His parents have kept him sheltered from the truth and he doesn't have any idea of what is going on.
But does this make it OK to watch such an idealized view of such a horrific event? Even such a small part of such a horrific event?
Obviously, this story isn't going to have a happy ending. But the extent of this ending shocked me and made the film more powerful erasing many doubts.
On the one hand, "Striped Pajamas" almost wants to be a bedtime story. On the other hand, it tries to tell a moving story that will tug at your heart, trying to get you to cry. But both efforts are just slightly off. When I researched the director, David Herman, and found that he had directed both "Brassed Off", starring Ewan McGregor and Pete Posthelwaite and "Little Voice" starring Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine, some things clicked into place. Each of these films has various elements that work, but they are all slightly off. Like something isn't clicking into place. Like the director doesn't have enough skill to recognize there is a problem, or the skill to correct the problem and connect all of the dots. Each film is missing something to connect the dots.
There is an attempt to bring home the horrors of the situation. Mama (Farmiga) knows they are moving to a house on the outskirts of a concentration camp, she knows what her husband is about to undertake, but she doesn't realize the extent of the job. The moment of realization is powerful, but it comes early and is followed by a lot of erratic behavior. Mama also spends a lot of time frowning or looking worried as she realizes Bruno might eventually learn the truth or as she watches her daughter begin to embrace the Third Reich, joining the youth movement.
The behavior seems to have no effect on Bruno, because he doesn't know or understand what is going on.
Because the children are living in the country, Papa hires a tutor for them. We watch as the tutor attempts to teach the two kids the party line, instilling in them the propaganda leading to the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich. At one point, Bruno spies on a secret meeting and watches a propaganda film about how great life in the camps is. These are very interesting moments, but they don't really seem to open up little Bruno's eyes. Since we are following Bruno through this journey, it is difficult for us to watch, as he doesn't seem to come to any realizations.
The main problem seems to be the choice of an 8 year old as our guide through this story. "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" is aimed at adults who go to foreign films, adults who like Merchant Ivory films, adults who like historical period pieces. So why an 8 year old? Are the filmmakers trying to attract children? To make the film seem more like a bedtime story? I really don't think so, but you have to wonder. If any children of this age actually watch this film, I think they might have nightmares. When the story finally shifts and the events begin to become more horrific, the children will have questions. Questions that you will have to answer and the answers will most likely scare the children.
But the film doesn't exactly work as a story strictly for adults. Because Bruno never sees any of the consequences of what his father is doing, what his country is doing, he remains oblivious. It is almost as though the filmmakers want us to fill in the blanks, leaving the horror to our imagination. And this works to a certain extent, but because Bruno is our guide into this world, he needs to see some of this as well. When a friendly old Jew, a former doctor, who works in the house suddenly disappears, Bruno asks about him and his sister responds "He's not coming back" with an attitude indicating he should know better. We know better. But Bruno wouldn't.
But the filmmakers temper this lack of awareness in two ways. Bruno is very young. And his lack of realization leads him to a very problematic end.
Vera Farmiga is good as Mama. As soon as she realizes what is going on in the camp, she becomes emotionally troubled and can't accept what her husband is doing. Unfortunately, this leads her to sit around with red eyes, swing on a tire swing for hours, and to act like a crazy person, causing her husband a lot of problems. The role is a bit over the top and theatrical, but as she is the only person who seems to realize the horror, it works.
David Thewlis is also good as Papa, an officer in the German army who accepts his new promotion with pride. He shows a believable lack of emotion and a credible amount of stern authority. Thankfully, he plays the character pretty even keel, staying away from histrionics.
Even though the performances are good, this is yet another film set during World War II in which the majority of the characters speak with British accents. Yes, the film is directed by a Brit, and co-produced by the BBC. But try to go for some authenticity and make the characters at least sound like they are German. In the upcoming "Valkyrie", it appears that Tom Cruise doesn't attempt any accent along with all of his British co-stars.
"The Boy in The Striped Pajamas" suffers from an inconsistent, mixed message.