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:: The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

In the opening scene of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (directed by Mark Herman, based on the popular novel by John Boyne), a quartet of small boys zooms through the city of Berlin, playing make-believe “fighter pilots”. As they duck and weave through the picturesque city centre, arms outstretched, the audience is gently introduced to the time frame of the film. We see shots of large resplendent Nazi swastikas hanging over public buildings, and bedraggled Jewish people being herded out of ghettos and onto trucks.

It soon emerges that one of the boys, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) with the big blue eyes, is the son of an SS officer, and his father (played with exacting menace by David Thewlis) has just been given a promotion which means relocating his family to the country. Young Bruno is reluctant to make the move, worried that he's going to miss his friends. When the family arrives at their new country house, the boy peeks out his bedroom window and spies a mysterious “farm”, where the “farmers” all wear “striped pyjamas”.

Despite repeated requests from his mother (Vera Farmiga) to stay within the stifling confines of home, the bored and restless Bruno finally manages to sneak out one day, and it is then that the young adventurer comes face to face with the “farm”. Curiously, it is surrounded by an electric fence, behind which is another 8-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). The boys become friends, and together try to puzzle out the incomprehensible adult world around them.

Much like Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presents the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child. Nothing could be further from Bruno's endearing innocence and naïveté than the cool, calm genocide that is taking place mere kilometres from his home.

At the heart of this film is Bruno’s loss of innocence, although his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) and mother experience it too. Bruno’s creative misapprehensions about the “farm” over yonder are painfully corrected one by one, until the ultimate truth is revealed in the film’s horrifying denouement. In contrast to her brother, the pubescent Gretel is easily drawn into the Nazi propaganda vortex. Before long, her “childish” dolls have been replaced by posters of the Fuhrer above her bed. As mother, Vera Famiga represents the ultimate in Nazi ideals of motherhood. She is glamorous and supportive of her husband…until the day a chance remark about the smoke coming from a nearby chimney forces her into knowledge about what her husband really does at work every day. Once this realisation has dawned, mother descends into hysteria and depression, before rallying to attempt to bring her children out of the situation.

The lavish production design reiterates the theme of innocence lost. In the early scenes of the film, in the Berlin house, Bruno is able to run freely through his house, making as much noise as he wants to. The atmosphere is light and airy and blue lead lit flowers dot the corners of every window. As the film progresses, however, the colour is gradually drained from the scenes. The house in the country is dark, inhospitable and foreboding. When Bruno perches on the stairs, their black rungs look like prison bars.

Some early reviews of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas have criticised its lack of verisimilitude; the way it subtly hints at the horrors of the concentration camp rather than depicting them graphically. However, this subtlety is entirely appropriate, as one must take into account the target audience of the film, namely, young adolescents who may be learning about the Holocaust for the first time. Furthermore, in keeping with the novel from which it was adapted, the film is a fable, rather than a historical document, so the audience can forgive the fact that Bruno’s naïveté is ultimately stretched beyond the plausible.

Although the performances in the film are utterly flawless, it is somewhat jarring that the entire cast speaks with an English accent. For me, it led to a brief period of confusion, early on in the film, where I thought it might be a story about an English family who had somehow become involved with the Nazis! Even though it doesn’t take long to adjust to the inappropriate accents, it would have been better for the actors to speak with German accents.

This film will stay with you long after leaving the cinema.