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Kid-Gloving the Holocaust

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

David Lukacs/Miramax Films

The new British film "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" comes from a long line of films about the Holocaust, a subject that can often be used as a shorthand for gravitas and importance. As a result, there seems to be the actual Holocaust (the murder of six million Jews) and the Holocaust of the cinematic imagination. These are images we have come to be familiar with: the red flags adorned with the swastikas, the cold, cruel countenance of the archetypal blond Nazi officer, and actors with shaved heads and fake tattoos on their forearms. "Striped Pajamas" is a film in this tradition. It tugs at our heartstrings while attempting to deal with horrors beyond our comprehension. While the movie does end up confronting these issues in a surprisingly complex way, it arrives at its point almost too late in the game to be effective.

The film focuses on Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a handsome, blue-eyed, knobby-kneed eight year old from Berlin, whose family is relocating to the countryside to be with its father (David Thewlis), a high-ranking Nazi officer. Mr. Butterfield is a wonderful young actor, but his childlike innocence is exploited to the point that it almost becomes annoying. Viewing a concentration camp in the distance from his window, Bruno repeatedly asks his mother about the "farmers" he saw, the "pajamas" he saw the farmers wearing, and whether he could play with the children at the "farm." His parents seem uneasy with these questions, which is strange given the rounding up of Jews throughout Europe and general political atmosphere in which the boy had grown up in. The film is meant to take place in the 1940s. For some historical context, the first concentration camp opened in 1933 and the first extermination camp in 1941.

Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) is reluctant to ruin her son's innocence, but at the same time is having some revelations of her own. When she finds out that the smoke billowing from the chimneys comes from the bodies of dead Jews, she is horrified and begins to mentally deteriorate. While the "we didn't know" defense might be barely plausible from a regular German citizen, the idea that a Nazi officer's wife would be ignorant of the death camps is fairly preposterous and despite Ms. Farmiga's skilled performance, it is difficult to feel sympathy for a character who could not make this mental leap.

Bruno becomes lonely in the isolated countryside, and one day he sneaks past the gate, runs through the forest, and ends up at the enclosed fence of the concentration camp. Desperate for playmates, he befriends a small boy on the other side of the fence, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Only after several months of indoctrination by a tutor who touts the party line does Bruno seem to comprehend the situation. "We're not supposed to be friends, you and me," he tells Shmuel. "We're supposed to be enemies. Did you know that?"

The film continues in this contrived and predictable way until the last 10 or 15 minutes, when the plot takes a sharp left turn. Concerned about Shmuel's father who has been missing for a few days, Bruno volunteers to sneak into the camp and help find him. The film's only acknowledgment of the complexities and contradictions inherent in Holocaust cinema is the line uttered by Bruno after donning the blue-and-white striped uniform. Turning to Shmuel, he asks, "How do I look?

Once Bruno is under the fence and enmeshed in the world of the death camp, the film finally gets interesting. A problem is set up: the audience is rooting for Bruno to get out. Like a boy who accidentally falls into a shark tank, we are desperate for his escape - nominally because he is the main character who we have gotten to know, but more importantly, because he doesn't "belong" there. Of course, this naturally begs the question: Who does belong there? Not only is it terrifying to watch, but it also forces us to engage in the logic being posed. Rationally, Bruno "deserves" to die just as much as any of the prisoners in the camp.

The climax has the pace of a typical action thriller, replete with melodramatic music and a raging thunderstorm, and yet the film's ending is still nuanced and digs deeper than most Holocaust tearjerkers. Perhaps the first 80 minutes were meant to lull us into a sense of complacency, and if so, it was effective. But while a gimmick can be interesting, complex, emotional and instructive, in the case of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," it is still ultimately a gimmick.


Opens on Nov. 7 in New York and on Sept. 12 in Britain.

Written and directed by Mark Herman, based on the novel by John Boyne; director of photography, Benoit Delhomme; edited by Michael Ellis; music by James Horner; production designer, Martin Childs; produced by David Heyman; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by the M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Asa Butterfield (Bruno), Jack Scanlon (Shmuel), Amber Beattie (Gretel), David Thewlis (Father) and Vera Farmiga (Mother).


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