As late as 1960, when Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Auschwitz, was placed on trial, 15 years after the fall of the Third Reich, more films had been made about flying saucers than about the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Today, however, when Hitler’s final solution lies snugly in the past, the website imdb.com lists more than 400 films about the Holocaust. Among those, The Revolt of Job and Au Revoir, les Enfants gain particular power by approaching the loathsome reality of genocide through the unjaded eyes of a child. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas similarly magnifies the horror of mass murder through the perspective of an endearing 8-year-old boy, Bruno, who is innocent enough to mistake the striped outfits that Jewish inmates are forced to wear for pajamas. The film also dramatizes the historical paradox that many of the most homicidal Nazis were devoted fathers and husbands, exemplars of wholesome family values.
Mark Herman’s film begins in affection and celebration. Because Bruno’s father (Thewlis), a proud German military officer, has just been promoted and reassigned, the family moves from Berlin to a grand rural estate. But, without anyone of his own age to play with (his only sibling, Gretel, is 12), Bruno is lonely. Near his new house is a “farm,” at the edge of which he discovers another 8-year-old. Bruno finds it curious that the other boy, oddly named Shmuel (Scanlon), wears pajamas all day. Though a barbed-wire fence separates Bruno from his new friend, he slips away from home to visit him often. Gradually, Bruno becomes aware that Shmuel is a Jew, and, though taught that Jews are the enemies of Germany, he sneaks him cakes and sandwiches to sate his constant hunger. It becomes clear, at least to the audience, that the farm is a death camp and that its commandant is Bruno’s father. His mother (Farmiga) is not especially bothered by the fact that the slave laborer peeling potatoes in her kitchen is a former doctor, but she is devastated to discover that the camp her husband runs is exterminating Jews. “Life is not so much about choices,” Bruno’s father tells him. “It’s about duty.” And his duty is to rid the world of Jews, even ones as sweet as Shmuel. “They’re not really people at all,” he explains.
Historically, the Nazis had no use for the Jewish children caught in their genocidal dragnets. Especially in a camp like the one Shmuel is confined to, where twin smokestacks belch the stench of burning flesh, an 8-year-old would not have survived the initial sorting on arrival. Furthermore, having the entire cast speak British English is as preposterous as a spaghetti Western whose gunslingers all speak Italian. Even if we accept the English dialogue as representing Bruno’s native German, Shmuel and the other transported Jews would likely speak Yiddish, Polish, or some other language.
Yet, despite these and other implausibilities, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which is probably a page-turner in the original novel by Irish author John Boyne, is impossible to turn away from — all the way through to its devastating conclusion. Asa Butterfield’s performance as young Bruno is uncanny, showing us that if we stare long enough at a boy in striped pajamas, we can recognize ourselves. •