The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

By Gerald Aaron, September 12, 2008


The story is simple and stark. Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) has to leave his plush home in World War Two Berlin when his Nazi officer father (David Thewlis) is transferred to oversee a "new project".

Isolated and without friends, Bruno ignores his mother's (Vera Farmiga) warnings not to explore behind their house, and goes to find the "farm" he glimpsed from his window. There he befriends the eponymous eight-year old "boy in the striped pyjamas", Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), unaware that the farm is, in fact, a concentration camp. (The camp is here called a "work" camp, presumably because director-screenwriter Mark Herman did not want to upset his, I presume, target audience, the same young audience for whom John Boyne aimed his book on which the film is based.) The two boys strike up a friendship which culminates in utterly unexpected tragedy.

"I believe," says producer David Heyman, who produced the Harry Potter blockbusters, "this is first and foremost a human tale. While it is a Holocaust story set in 1940s Germany, for me it is timeless." He goes on to cite such contemporary horrors as Rwanda, Darfur and Somalia. Herman, too, sets out to explain his approach by saying that "the fascination of this story is that these two boys, from either side of the fence, don't actually know what's going on".

We do, however, which gives Herman's lumpen storytelling an extra emotional dimension his film does not, in fact, inherently possess. People need constantly to be reminded of the Holocaust as it and its atrocities fade into history with the passage of time. So from that point of view, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is to be welcomed, especially as it is intended to inform younger viewers.

Unfortunately it is not particularly good. For a start, the "work" camp is frankly ludicrous, featuring as it does an empty section where the two boys can meet unseen by the guards, a flimsy fence that fails to prevent Bruno digging his way in and no sentry towers. Of course, this means then boys are able to bond as the plot dictates, but it is hardly credible and undercuts, in particular, the grim final sequence.

The acting is adequate enough, and if enough people see the film then it will have served a purpose. However, using the Holocaust for such a predominantly unbelievable story was, I felt, hard to justify, despite the no doubt sincere ambitions of the filmmakers. Major book, minor film.

Last updated: 2:59pm, February 18 2011