A Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

A quote from the British poet John Betjeman begins the film, “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”

I continued my annual tradition of seeing a film on Thanksgiving evening. This year, I chose “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, by director Mark Herman. I am glad that I did. It was my favorite film of 2008 so far, and one of the best I’ve ever seen. My test of a good film is whether I’m still thinking about it the next day. Not only am I still thinking about it, I’m still shedding tears about it. Not since Life is Beautifulhas a film so poignantly portrayed the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child.

There is nothing that does not work in this film. The script is storytelling at its best, the actors, and especially the boys, are superb, and the cinematography captures the vibrant colors of innocence at home and the coldness of the concentration camp.

The film tells the story of young Bruno who is the son of a Nazi officer. Bruno has a happy existence in his very normal and beautiful home in Berlin, but his father is transferred to “the country” where they will live next to “a farm”. The boy dislikes the new home, which is cold, dark, and lonely. He is isolated from any friends and he is confined to the house with no place to explore. The boy notices a “farm” next door where the workers all wear striped pajamas. Bruno escapes from the house into the woods, and upon arrival at the farm, he discovers a young boy named Schmo sitting by the fence in “striped pajamas”. They strike up a conversation, and soon develop a friendship as Bruno gradually comes to see the horrors of Schmo’s existence.

Bruno’s mother and Bruno come to see the truth of the horrors that Bruno’s father is perpetuating at the “farm”, and the film’s great moral conflict happens when the mother and Bruno are forced to see their own participation in the evil. The film helps us to see that not every person in Nazi Germany was inhumane, but rather was convinced by their own government’s portrayal of those unlike them as “evil”. The film calls upon us to question whether we also have allowed government or others to do the same to us so that we no longer see others as fellow human beings. But the film also helps us to see how we can be swept up into evil systems with little way to escape.

I will spare my readers the exact ending of the film in case they have not seen the film, but the film ends in a great incarnational moment when Bruno finally decides to enter into the concentration camp himself, taking off the clothes of his privileged world and putting on himself the clothes of the Jewish boy. It is an act of identification with the suffering of all those inside the camp, and we are left to see the horror that results when people seek to label rather than to understand those we fear.


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