Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a classic case of a filmmaker mistaking the importance of his subject for the importance of his film. The movie’s goal of viewing the Holocaust through the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of an 8-year-old German is heavy stuff, and a fresh enough take on the subject on its own. But Herman has decided that this simply isn’t enough, as he’s gummed up the works in breast-beating histrionics and a contrived final act, all of which makes the movie feel phony and undermines any emotional resonance it might’ve had.
Since he’s working from a script he himself wrote (based on John Boyne’s novel of the same name), Herman is the only person to blame, really, so the idea that he doesn’t trust his own material is unlikely. Instead, the movie looks, feels and moves with overstated, calculated sincerity and a self-aware “importance” and “power” that causes it to reek of Oscar bait to the point that the film simply unravels. What could’ve been a nice—albeit depressing—little movie, instead becomes one which is bogged down in its own reverent minutiae.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield, Son of Rambow) is a young boy living the good life in Nazi Berlin during World War II, until he and his English-accented German family are forced to move to the countryside because Bruno’s father (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), who’s a Nazi officer, has just been given a promotion.
Finding himself suddenly alone and without friends, young Bruno, who fancies himself an adventurer, begins exploring the woods behind his house, and comes upon the concentration camp his father is now in charge of. Of course, being the youthful tot that he is, Bruno assumes this is a farm, while being perplexed that the people inside are wearing their pajamas (which are, of course, their prison-issue uniforms) in broad daylight. He soon meets Shmuel (newcomer Jack Scanlon), a Jewish child of the same age, who spends his days hiding near the edge of the fence to keep out of working.
The two quickly—and secretly—become friends, an idea that is intercut with his father’s own fierce nationalism and the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi education system. The point, of course, is to show the atrocities of the Holocaust through the lens of Bruno’s naïveté; what he sees he’s not mature or experienced enough to grasp, morally or ethically. This would be fine if his innocence didn’t make him come across as exceptionally dense or incredibly oblivious, or if it didn’t all feel a bit too much like an episode of Leave It to Beaver.
Most of the movie involves Bruno wistfully gazing off into the distance, though there is the occasional scene that shows his mother (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) slowly descending into the mode of the disheveled housewife due to her husband’s work. Meanwhile, Thewlis tries really hard to appear menacing in an ill-fitting Nazi uniform. All of this slowly grows into a climax that is supposed to be heartbreaking, but is instead too unnatural, sudden and convenient to be affecting.
It’s a pity, too, since this is the only instance where Herman can come up with anything striking or memorable (in fact, he gets three such moments within the film’s last few minutes), but the final moments of the film also occur simultaneously with the movie’s rain-soaked, self-satisfied scenery-chewing dramatics. Ultimately, the film’s final reel is a microcosm of the movie itself, since it not only shows where it goes right, but where it fails horribly, too. Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.