"We’re working very hard to make this world a better place for you to grow up in"
Films about the Holocaust are always difficult to make because how can a fictional film ever grasp the enormity and horror of that most notorious of events? In some very real sense it can’t â€” the epic Shoah or the succinct Night and Fog touch upon the issue in a profound way because they are by turns dispassionate in retelling events from those that survived it on both sides or try to gain meaning from juxtaposing the past and the (then) present. In fiction, Roberto Benigni attempted the seemingly impossible by making a bitter-sweet comedy about the Holocaust with Life is Beautiful (also attempted in the shelved Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried) showing how that the most horrific elements disappear through denial.
Bereft of comedy The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas attempts the same thing, showing how even a family living close enough to a concentration camp to smell the furnaces billowing out their terrible smoke, can deny what is happening on their doorstep. Perhaps more difficult because The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is, like the book by John Boyne upon which the film is based, intended in some part for children. It’s a bold move and one that threatens to tread an already thin line by accentuating the key dilemma to Holocaust film-making – whether to show the horrors explicitly and run the risk of exploitation or ghoulish representation. Deny the audience the sights and you face sanitising the most horrific of events. For the most part The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas succeeds in this dilemma by focussing on a German boy, rather than through the experience of a Jewish inmate. And it shows how even he most apparently reasonable of men can become monsters.
Nine year old Bruno is happy with his life in Berlin, he gets to see his friends a lot and has a really strong bond to his parents. Things seem to be looking up because his father Ralph has just got a promotion. The thing is that Ralph is an officer for the SS and the promotion means moving the family away from Berlin and deep into the countryside. Bruno is virtually imprisoned in the annexe’s grounds and desperate for attention. Worse still his father is getting less approachable by the day and his mother is always arguing. His only friend Pavel, an ex-doctor seems to be treated badly by everyone. And then there are the other people who work at the nearby farm, a strange group who all seem to wear striped pyjamas. Fed up with being locked in, Bruno escapes to play near the ‘farm’, a collective of sheds surrounded by wire fencing. There he meets Shmuel, another boy also desperate for companionship but one whose life is very, very different from Bruno’s.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas plays its simple tale to its inevitable but shocking conclusion in a sensitive manner – inquisitive in the way that we view the film almost entirely from Bruno’s point of view. Of course we are in the privileged position of knowing what Bruno does not, making the inevitable mistakes he makes in his friendship with Shmuel all the more frustrating and heartfelt. All the cast provide excellent performances but particularly Asa Butterfield as Bruno, who needs to keep each scene fresh with the innocence of youth and manages it admirably
Perhaps the film’s most disturbing aspect is the way it treats the character of Ralph. As we are seeing the events predominantly through the eyes of his son this is not the portrait of a monster. We like to demonise our cinematic baddies as much as our real world ones but the reality is more frightening. The fact that Ralph can retain a sense of humanity and love for his family even as he is ordering the slaughter of thousands makes him truly upsetting. It would be easier for us to accept that a madman is capable of such crimes as opposed to a human being, albeit one who is losing his soul.
As a way of beginning to tell children about the Holocaust and what it meant The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas proves a worthy starting point although its careful pacing and deliberately old-fashioned film-making style might endear it more to an adult audience. And this, ultimately is where the film’s real problems lie, in where and how they are going to market such a film. It hasn’t helped that the BBFC have rated the film a fairly restrictive 12a rating (Life Is Beautiful managed to get a PG), perhaps warning off some of its potential market. A sensitively made and well-constructed film with exemplary acting and a real message. A difficult subject but one told in microcosm to emphasise the human tragedy to the individual and one that doesn’t patronise its younger audience nor, ultimately, cheats them.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas opens in Spain today, then Finland on 3/10 and the U.S. on 16/10 at the Heartland Film Festival.