Boy in the Striped Pajamas Offers an Unusual Perspective
- Friday, November 07, 2008
DVD Release Date: March 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: November 7, 2008 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust)
Run Time: 95 min.
Director: Mark Herman
Actors: Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Jack Scanlon, Rupert Friend
In the 1980s, stories about African Americans began to find commercial success in the United States. It seemed that black-oriented cinema had broken out of the ghetto it had been in since the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s—now these films delivered more subtle portrayals of black characters in stories that transcended the racial divide between blacks and whites.
Trouble was, these high-profile, studio-backed films told their stories through the eyes of white protagonists. Driving Miss Daisy epitomized the trend, earning the industry’s highest distinction, a Best Picture Oscar, but it was far from alone. Other films like Cry Freedom and Glory told the stories of racial strife (apartheid and the Civil War, respectively) through the eyes of characters played by Kevin Kline and Matthew Broderick, respectively.
African American filmmakers such as Spike Lee and John Singleton spoke out against the tendency for stories about black men and women to be told from the perspective of whites. As those filmmakers began to create their own award-worthy work from the perspective of black protagonists, things slowly began to change.
Similarly, films about the Holocaust have been around for many years, showing us the horrors of what Jews were subjected to in concentration camps. Nevertheless, the most honored of these films, Schindler’s List, was told from the perspective of a Nazi officer. The potential controversy over that change in perspective was minimized because very few people questioned the motives of the film’s Jewish director, Steven Spielberg, or the remorse of its title character, Oskar Schindler.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on a novel by John Boyne, is another matter—a well-told story of childhood friendship between the son of a Nazi official and a young Jewish boy in a work camp seen mainly from the perspective of the German boy. With so much already known about the Holocaust, this unusual perspective must have seemed like a fresh take on history, but in the end it comes across as misconceived, despite the film’s strengths.
Asa Butterfield stars as Bruno, the eight-year-old son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) devoted to the cause and a mother (Vera Farmiga) increasingly turned off by her husband’s role in it. When the family moves to the country, Bruno sees from his bedroom window a work camp beyond the gated area of the home. Unaware of world events, he concludes that the camp is a farm, and the people within it farmers. He mistakes their striped uniforms for pajamas.
Bruno’s curiosity about the “farmers” is not well received. “These people are not really people at all,” he’s told. Nor is Bruno able to process what might be clearer to older children and adults. When an older man from the camp helps stitch up Bruno after he falls from a tire swing, Bruno learns that the man was once a practicing doctor. “You couldn’t have been much good, then, if you had to practice,” Bruno responds, oblivious to the reason the man is now a “farmer.”
Bruno’s mother tries to shield her son from her own dawning sense of horror at the extent of her husband’s new responsibilities, and at everything that’s happening in the work camp. Her efforts fail, however, when Bruno slips past his restrictive play area, crosses a stream and finds himself face to face with a young boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who sits just inside the camp bound by an electrified fence.
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