Eric D. Snider

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Movie Review

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: C

Released: November 7, 2008


Directed by:


Go big or go home, that's what the athletes say. No point in batting unless you're going to swing for the fences. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" takes that attitude to heart. It's about a little boy who becomes friends with another little boy who is in a Nazi concentration camp, their camaraderie conducted almost entirely through an electrified barbed-wire fence, with the outsider unaware of his pal's predicament. A film like this will either succeed terrifically at bringing the Holocaust down to a junior level, or it will fail appallingly. Either way, there's no question: At least they swung hard.

Because of that, while I don't think the film succeeds at all, I do find its shortcomings interesting. Based on a novel by John Boyne and adapted by Mark Herman ("Little Voice"), it establishes its themes in its first images: young boys frolicking in a public square in front of Nazi headquarters in Berlin, their carefree laughter at odds with the ominous swastikas in the background. Will this be a film about the loss of innocence? Indeed it will!

The year is 1941-ish, and 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is one of those boys. He and his Nazi officer father (David Thewlis), mother (Vera Farmiga), and 12-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) are transferred to a new home out in the country when Father is promoted, and from his new bedroom Bruno can see a strange farm off in the distance. The farmers wear striped pajamas. One of them comes to his family's house to do menial gardening and other labor, and he seems sickly, terrified, and beaten-down. What strange farmers these are!

Bored with his new surroundings, Bruno sneaks away from his house and down the road to the farm. Inside the fence is a boy his age with the funny name of Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and they become friends. When you're 8, you can be friends with someone based solely on the fact that you're both 8. Shmuel tends to hide over in this corner of the yard, away from the more rigorous labor that goes on in the main section. He's baffled, almost offended, when Bruno thinks the number on his shirt has to do with a game of some kind. Yet he doesn't explain what the real situation is, either.

Neither do Bruno's parents or anyone else. There is a conscious effort to shield the children from what's happening around them; for a while, even Mother isn't fully aware of what goes on at the "farm" (which is actually Auschwitz, of course). She is shown to be a good-hearted woman who treats the aforementioned prisoner-turned-gardener, Pavel (David Hayman), with decency.

Meanwhile, Gretel develops a crush on a young soldier and starts putting up militant Nazis posters in her bedroom. (You know how teen girls are with their infatuations! One week it's swing music; the next week it's Nazism.) Gretel even renounces all her dolls as childish playthings, and there's an odd moment when Bruno goes into the basement and discovers the discarded dolls piled up like a stack of bodies -- a dollocaust, if you will.

The way Herman films this image suggests the parallel is intentional. It's a movie about a child's understanding of the Holocaust; it makes sense, at least theoretically, to use a child's toys as a metaphor. But there's too much of this kind of silliness -- or, rather, things that are supposed to be deep and thought-provoking that come off as silliness. Keeping Bruno in the dark about what's happening on the "farm" eventually requires so much convoluted lying and misdirection that you can't take it seriously anymore.

It leads to a finale that is ... well, I can honestly say it's the right ending for this story. If the point is to warn of the dangers inherent in shielding our children from the evils of the world, then this conclusion is perfect. While I can't say the film had much emotional impact on me -- I get the point, but it's sloppily executed -- it's definitely an unusual attempt.

Grade: C

Rated PG-13, intense thematic elements related to the Holocaust

1 hr., 33 min.

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This item has 14 comments

  1. B says:

    Sounds like the movie has all the same problems as the book, and I hated, hated, hated that book. It's just so infuriatingly stupid. The only way it makes any sense is if you assume Bruno has some sort of learning disability. Otherwise there's no explanation as to why he's so dense.

  2. MAC says:

    I was personally moved by the final scene of the movie. I can see the validity in much of Eric's criticism, and I certainly didn't think the film was without flaws, but I thought the final 5 - 10 minutes were executed so well that I have repeatedly thought of the movie since I saw it a few days ago.

    Is anyone famliiar with other movies that give us a sympathetic view of Nazi families, as this one did? I found that element very interesting.

  3. Kaydria says:

    MAC, Swing Kids is about a boy and his friends and family living in Nazi Germany that disagree with Hitler's policies. It's one of my favorite movies of all time. It's not perfect, but it has a bunch of fantastic actors that are sort of famous now. Oh and the boy and his friends are all obsessed with swing music and American culture. That's why it's called Swing Kids.

    It has Batman in it.

  4. EOG says:

    B, I have to fully disagree with what you said...

    "The only way it makes any sense is if you assume Bruno has some sort of learning disability. Otherwise there's no explanation as to why he's so dense."

    I'm not sure if you have ever been to a concentration camp or similar historical tour, but if you have, you should know that very few people actually knew what went on in the camps. Locals assumed they were work camps where the inhabitants were treated fairly.
    Bruno seems "dense" because he has no idea of what is going on. The Nazi propaganda makes them believe that their army are protecting their nation but without explaining the harrowing details of this process.

    I really enjoyed the simplicity of the movie and found it quite touching.. my only drawback being the dodgy English accents everyone has. I think subtitled German would have been more appropriate!

  5. Carole says:

    In answer to MAC's question about other films that give a fairly sympathetic view of Nazi families - there's a really good Czech/German film called Divided We Fall (Musime Se Pomahat was the Czech title).

  6. Bryce says:

    dollocaust...LMBO...Snider, you are a genius.

  7. Mya says:

    I have to "fully disagree" with you as well. I have to say that you're difficulty in understanding the naivete of a child is sad. Perhaps you should revisit this idea and discover the beauty therein. When you find the "dollocaust" (cute neologism - congrats on that), to "silly" i would suggest again that you consider the world of a child and the eyes of a child again. This film is excellent at doing just that, giving an adult the eyes of a child again in looking at unimaginable horror.

  8. Lynda says:

    I agree with EOG's comments. I just saw the movie tonight. My emotions were so caught up to the very end, that I literally could not move from my seat in the theater until the credits were all done. Even then, I didn't want to just "get up and walk away".

    I've lived in Germany for 3 years, right before and during the time the Berlin Wall came down. I've toured a concentration camp while living in Germany. Having that experience without question brings a different sort of emotional involvement in seeing this type of film.

  9. Eavan says:

    I absolutely adored the book and on hearing about the movie I was thrilled. John Boyne (author) lives in Ireland, near me, and I was delighted he got this chance.

    I really enjoyed this film. The ending, in particular, was superb. The film wasn't without flaws, I'll admit, but I thought it was a very good adaption of a brilliant book.

  10. sarah says:

    this didn't have much emotional impact on you?! you freakin nazi

  11. bev says:

    There's a parallel between the child's innocence and naivity and naivity of the german people about what was going on in the name of their nation.

    I don't agree about the imagery being silliness,a lot of it also alluded to the idea of the prisons on both side of the fence.

    The thing that struck me at the end most was the feeling of tragedy for one family and one child against a backdrop of the death of millions.

  12. della says:

    i loved the movie it was excellent anything with children, for me, is very touching. when you are so strict with children they are afraid to speak for fear for getting into trouble. the scene about spilling the wine on the table by the servant and getting a beating unnerved me and the family as well except ,of course, the the movie. the children were sweet and innocent and i loved the little boy who was the prisoner.

  13. WiseNLucky says:

    This movie finally came to DirecTV and I was able to see it. I was equally naive at age 8 and could very well have been this little boy, except that I would never have had the courage to go to the "farm" in the first place. The boy's parents obviously went to great lengths to keep them in the dark, and I could totally see that happening.

    I, too, lived in Germany for several years and visited one of the camps. The German's were fairly successful in keeping the truth from their own people and even the people in the camps, especially the children. "Arbeit Macht Frei."

    I thought the movie was very good, and the ending was excellent.

  14. Johnny says:

    No emotional impact? You sir, are made of stone.

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