The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Released: 2008
Director: Mark Herman

Starring: David Thewliss, Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga


Good – but without the heart of the book

Holocaust Memorial Day is coming up in just 74 days time and across the country schools, libraries and community groups are already planning how to commemorate this important day.  I know that in a lot of the commemorations John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas will be used as a way of introducing young people to the horrors of the Holocaust and the senseless destruction of life based on discrimination.  The book was so popular and touching that it came as no surprise that a film version was produced not long after the novel was published.

Bruno is an eight-year old German boy whose father is a high-ranking SS officer with a new assignment that sees him take command of what the viewer knows to be a concentration camp.  Bruno meets fellow eight-year old Shmuel who lives behind an electrified fence and wears striped pyjamas every day.  They soon develop a strong friendship despite their very different stations in life.  Bruno learns that Shmuel is imprisoned because he is Jewish and is confused that his friend is so nice when all of his teachings have insisted that Jews are evil vermin.  Bruno’s mother finds it increasingly difficult to cope with her husband’s work and it is agreed that she and the children will move to Heidelberg.  Before this can happen, Bruno finds a way to join his friend inside the camp.

The acting in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is outstanding.  David Thewliss as the Father portrays a complex character.  A seemingly cultured, kind family man who is nonetheless willing and indeed enthusiastic about his work in sending thousands of people to their deaths.  Vera Farmiga is spellbinding as Bruno’s mother, initially a lively woman whose spirit is slowly destroyed by the knowledge that she is living next to an extermination camp.  The three child stars – Asa Butterfield as Bruno, Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and Amber Beattie as Bruno’s sister Greta – are all excellent.  They capture the innocence and confusion of their characters wonderfully without being too stage-schooly.  The only false note was Rupert Friend as Lieutenant Kotler – a hideously over the top and stereotypical Nazi.

I wanted to love The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.  I really did.  I found the book heartbreaking and meaningful, it’s what that I would recommend to anyone wanting an introduction to the Holocaust and the human cost of discriminatory policies.  I can’t however say the same about the film.  It’s not that the film is bad, it certainly isn’t, but there’s something missing.  The emotional heart of the story doesn’t seem to exist in the film.  I cry easily at films, I cried at the book but didn’t here.  I can’t pinpoint what the issue is with the film.  The story is strong and the performances are great but I simply didn’t connect with the film in the same way that I did with the book.  It was too clean, too bright and shiny.  Too Hollywood perhaps.

I found that I was constantly questioning elements of the story that I accepted willingly from the book.   An eight year old surviving in the camps long enough to develop a friendship is highly unlikely but not impossible, but his ability to wander off unnoticed and neglect his work duties was difficult to accept.  I also found myself wondering where the film was actually set.  In the book Bruno refers to his new home as “Outwith” (a mishearing of Auschwitz which emphasised the exclusionary policies of the Nazis).  It is never confirmed in the film which camp Bruno’s father runs.  It seems that it could be Auschwitz but there are also suggestions that it could be Theresienstadt, which wasn’t an extermination camp with crematoria.  Perhaps though that’s me overthinking the plot – after all this isn’t a documentary but a fictional representation of events.

The strong performances are undoubtedly the film’s saving grace.  As always I came away a little more full of admiration for David Thewliss than before and I also find that I want to see more of Vera Farmiga.  It is a good film, but the book is great so if you have a choice, go for the book.  And if you can, find a way to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day 2012.

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