Film review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), directed by Mark Herman
This is an adaptation of John Boyne’s novel by the same name. It stars an 8-year-old boy called Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who lives in a big, fancy house in Berlin with his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), his mother (Vera Farmiga), and father (David Thewlis) – a Nazi officer.
When “Father” gets a promotion, the family pack their things and move to the countryside with Maria (Cara Horgan), the housekeeper or nanny or whatever she is.
Bruno hates having to leave his friends, and there’s nothing to do in the new house. He’s not allowed in the back garden, and the front of the house isn’t big or exciting enough for an 8-year-old child. He’s bored, and from his window, he can see a farm in the distance. Why won’t his parents let him go there and play with the children?
Bruno can’t understand why Pavel (David Hayman), who used to be a doctor, is peeling potatoes in their kitchen – in his pyjamas, of all things! One day, Bruno gets tired of his tyre swing and his adventure books and decides to go exploring – and what does he find? Another 8-year-old boy! Pyjama-clad Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), however, can’t come out and play because he’s behind a fence, but the two boys form a friendship, of sorts.
Also starring Richard Johnson as Grandpa, Sheila Hancock as Grandma, Rupert Friend as Lieutenant Kotler, and Jim Norton as the tutor Herr Liszt.
When this film was on TV, I was watching something on another channel and recording something else, so I could only watch the film in the ad breaks, and then I saw the last half-hour or so. I don’t think there’s any other film that have made me cry as hard as this. End scene of Dead Poets Society makes tears flow, I sobbed my way through the last half hour of Marley & Me, but the last five minutes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I wasn’t so much crying over the characters involved, but crying over history. I won’t go into details of what happens to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve seen the film or read the book, you know what I’m talking about.
After that, I wanted to watch the film from the beginning, and I finally have. If you know how it ends, the whole movie is a difficult watch. I was going to skip the very end (it was late, I was watching it in bed, and I didn’t want to spend the next half-hour bawling again because people can be so evil), but I got to about 15 minutes before the end and had to switch it off. In fact, I’m in tears just thinking about this film.
The film follows Bruno, who is a clueless and naive little boy, and Butterfield plays him so very well. He’s had a sheltered childhood, and he has no idea about politics or the war or anything. His dad is a soldier, “but not the sort that takes people’s clothes”. When he sneaks a watch of a concentration camp propaganda film, he really believes his dad is a nice man – in charge of what appears to be a holiday camp. The boring tutor, who keeps going on about boring history, isn’t listened to because he won’t let Bruno read his adventure books. His sister Gretel, on the other hand, starts putting up posters of Hitler on her bedroom wall.
Shmuel is wise beyond his years. He might also just be a young boy, but he’s under no illusion that he lives on a strange farm. He’s a Jew, and that’s all he’s “done wrong”. He’s not a bad person, he’s a little boy, but he’s still inside a camp. Scanlon is incredible in this role. You really forget that he’s an actor playing a part.
As for the father (did I mention Remus Lupin is my favourite character from Harry Potter?), is he a monster, or is he just doing his job and doesn’t really like the situation either? The mother knows what the camp is, of sorts. She knows it’s not a farm, and she knows her husband is the Commendant of it, but when she finds out what really goes on, her image of an idyllic life in the countryside starts to crumble.
If you haven’t already got the idea, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an excellent film. Because you (hopefully) know history, you can see exactly how clueless Bruno is, and his childhood innocense is both uplifting and terrifying. But yes, the ending will require tissues, and plenty of them. Up until that point, though, it’s a story about being the wife and children of a Nazi officer in charge of a concentration camp. The book might not be based on any real people, but the setting is real enough, and should make everyone sick to their stomachs.
5 out of 5 adventure books.