“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is an unusual movie that offers a child’s eye view of the Holocaust. It’s also unusually offensive on a couple of levels. The child in question isn’t the boy of the title — that would be Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a doomed, eight-year-old Jewish inmate of a German concentration camp, who, what with the slave labor, starvation and general brutality, isn’t especially photogenic. No, the picture’s focus is on eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the conspicuously cute, coddled and well-fed son of the camp’s Nazi commandant (David Thewlis). There’s that.
Then there’s Bruno’s mom, Elsa (Vera Farmiga). Her husband has moved her and Bruno and his older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), from their stately home in Berlin to take charge of a “farm,” as he deviously describes it, somewhere outside the city. Despite the fact that her husband is not just a Nazi, but an officer of the irredeemably subhuman SS (David Thewlis? Professor Lupin?), and that she has only to glance up in the sky to see smoke pouring from the chimneys of the nearby crematoria, and can smell the stink of burning human flesh in the air (“They smell even worse when they burn,” her husband’s driver cheerily tells her), Elsa has no idea what’s going on at this place. (In the film’s production notes, director Mark Herman insists this could have been the case. “The commandant’s wife at Auschwitz,” he says, “was living virtually on top of the camp without knowing it was a death camp for two years.” To which one can only reply, “Or so she said.”)
With his sister enthusiastically boning up on Nazi ideology (she’s tacked a big Hitler poster on the wall in her bedroom), Bruno is left to his own devices. Curious, he wanders off toward the “farm.” He comes to an electrified fence and, on the other side of it, the unhappy Shmuel, pottering about in some rubble. They begin talking. Bruno tells Shmuel he has a weird name. Shmuel says “Bruno” is a new one on him, too. Later, when Shmuel is brought into Bruno’s house as a trusty, to help tidy up, Bruno offers him a cake. When the driver, Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend), catches him eating it, Bruno immediately rats Shmuel out and swears that he stole it. Their friendship continues to blossom nevertheless, and they continue meeting at the fence, without any of the camp’s guards — who were known to be attentive to such things — noticing.
The movie is tastefully shot in the manner of a BBC production (in fact, BBC Films had a hand in producing it), and all of the actors speak with refined British accents (even Farmiga, who’s American). The film thus has an odd “Masterpiece Theatre” tone that seems wrong for this material. The picture’s most gaping flaw, however, is its conclusion, which flirts with the unspeakable. David Heyman, one of the producers of this movie (and of the Harry Potter films), positions the movie as a Holocaust lesson for children, and hopes they will come away from it “with a greater understanding of the personal cost of such tragedy and their kinship with the participants — perpetrators and victims alike.” Certainly it would be educational to point out how average people can be swept up by vile ideologies. But the Nazis themselves weren’t misguided souls; they knew exactly what they were doing — especially the SS — and they did it with vile determination. Any suggestion that we ought to empathize with Hitler’s minions as much as with their Jewish victims would be an appalling moral equivalence, with a stink of its own.
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