Film Score: James Horner Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Starring: David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Asa Butterfield and László Nádasi
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an interesting “what if” Holocaust story by John Boyne that, unfortunately, suffers from the same problem as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. The inability of writer-director Mark Herman to move beyond the juvenile literary source ultimately dooms it as adult entertainment. Now I hesitate to call anything dealing with The Holocaust entertainment, but in purely cinematic terms that’s what we’re dealing with when looking at feature films. What this kind of film needs is for the original text to be reimagined in a way that makes it pure cinema rather than just a filmed novel. In this case, the strict adherence to the juvenile story forces comparisons to that cinematic kiss of death category: the TV movie.
The story is from the point of view of Asa Butterfield, whose father is a high-ranking SS officer in the German military in 1942. Forced to move from their Berlin home that he loves, he finds himself in the country, with a nearby “farm.” Isolated, and with no friends, he naturally seeks out the company of the children he’s seen there, with obvious consequences. The story as is, screams out in need of voice-over to tell us what he’s thinking. Again, the reason for this comes from the ill-advised desire of Herman to stay true to the book and thereby rendering the main character mute. There are so many other things that could have been done.
I would have made the central character in the story the mother. Early on the grandmother provides some weak dissention, but if the mother had disagreed with what her husband was doing right from the start it would have provided much more tension, adult interest, and a more realistic context for the boy’s behavior. I would have changed the title as well. The film also desperately needs some manipulation of the visuals. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List benefitted tremendously from the black and white images, but it didn’t need to be that dramatic. The Grey Zone, with its attenuation of the color scale to match the title, is equally fine. Because of the spare, clean sets, vivid color, and bad direction of the actors, the film lacks the verisimilitude that one would hope for from a film attempting to depict the Nazi horrors and instead winds up being little more than a WWII version of The Fox and the Hound.
On the positive side, David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga are excellent casting choices as the parents. Thewlis has a Reinhardt Heydrich look as a Nazi, and Farmiga the haunting feeling that you’ve seen her in hundreds of similar pictures. Also, the casting of the soldiers is uniformly excellent. The story on its own holds some interest, but left twisting in the wind without a shred of inner dialogue by the main character fatally flaws the entire production. This is especially tragic considering the powerfully unexpected ending. There must be a dozen major films that deal with a boy in wartime that are infinitely better, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and John Boorman’s Hope and Glory come immediately to mind. Unfortunately, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas falls well short of those films, and is a disappointment for those who seek to explore this dark side of world history in a realistic way. The only thing that deserves merit is the disturbing subject matter and the unexpected but appropriate ending.