by Ken B.
From most angles, I couldn’t find anything wrong with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The acting is well above average (despite the fact we have German characters with British accents), the production design brilliant, and the music, while sometimes over-done, is alright. So you’re probably wondering why I’ve given it just two stars. The answer is the ending, or perhaps its whole setup. This movie, as you’ve heard, is set during the Holocaust, and that’s a very sensitive subject, due to the fact that millions of people today are influenced by it whether through religion, family history, or directly. The final moments of this film, designed to be shocking and heartbreaking, are just that, but almost artificially so. And the fact that this is a Holocaust movie with an artificial, sellout-ish ending creates an uncomfortable, offensive, trivializing sensation.
The events leading up to this are as such: Bruno (ASA BUTTERFIELD) is the son of a SS worker (DAVID THEWLIS). At the start of the film, he lives in Berlin during World War II, has a lot of friends, and is generally content. However, his father is reassigned, so Bruno, with his family (also a mother and an older sister) moves to the countryside. It’s a big house and there’s a large fence out back, with rows of buildings behind it. One day, Bruno, who sees people wandering both in around the buildings and serving in the house “farmers”, is out by the fence and sees a boy Shmuel (JACK SCANLON). Shmuel is wearing striped clothes which Bruno equates to pajamas, and they form a friendship which no one really knows about, and that’s good, because no one who really knew who Shmuel was would approve of it.
Apparently, this movie is based off a book. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it’s as misguided as its adaptation. The factual errors run abound – Shmuel is maybe 8 or 9, and if I remember correctly, very few younger children would survive very long in concentration camps – they couldn’t be the laborers that were required. A popular refrain among defenders of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is that, well, movies don’t have to be absolutely true to life. While I agree with this sentiment on one hand, we’re talking about the Holocaust here. This was a very real disaster, and to be treated with a flagrant disregard for the facts is simply not an okay thing to do. This, indeed, comes off as movie of the most insensitive kind – using a dark period in recent history as a cheap ploy for tears.
But although this movie may be insensitive, it certainly is not insincere. There is a great amount of emotion being poured into it – from the details of the screenplay, written by director Mark Herman to the main performances from Butterfield and Scanlon, it’s obvious that everyone was very much dedicated to what they were doing. It was incredibly disappointing to see how it didn’t pay off.
I desperately wanted to recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but it just isn’t something you want to subject yourself to. It’s a beautiful film artistically, but leaves you feeling terrible – and not in the way that it was intended.