Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas uses the viewpoint of childhood naïvete to critique the absurdities of the Holocaust. Problem is, these absurdities should already be pretty clear to the modern viewer, so such an approach seems, at best, misguided. Rather than attempt to present the horrors of WWII with any kind of contemporary immediacy, Herman uses the historical lapse of 60-odd years to inject an ironic distance between viewer and subject and make the dominant viewpoints of the Nazis seem ridiculously quaint. Then the film’s sepia-toned glaze gives the picture the look of a museum piece, so that even as Herman ratchets up the hysteria for a final bit of on-screen horror, it seems sufficiently removed in time to shield the viewer from any direct engagement with the horrific events being shown.
In the film’s fanciful conceit, eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father is a high-ranking Nazi officer, moves with his family to a military outpost next to a death camp. Lacking the companionship of other young boys, he wanders off against his parent’s orders to the camp and strikes up a (very) unlikely friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish prisoner, the two communicating through the gaps in the barbed-wire fencing. Soon the lessons Bruno has imbibed through his father’s propaganda rub up against the empirical evidence of his interactions with his new friend: “Isn’t there such a thing as a nice Jew?” the confused Bruno asks his tutor after visiting Shmuel. At first hopelessly naïve (he can’t understand why the prisoner who peels potatoes for his family gave up being a doctor for domestic servitude), Bruno’s narrow worldview soon finds its corrective in Shmuel’s hardened knowingness. The scenes between the two boys are delicately played; often they feel like the carefree interactions of any two youngsters, but they never lose their grounding in bitter reality, Shmuel’s missing teeth, dirt smothered face and prisoner garb (the “striped pajamas” of the title) serving as constant reminders of the underlying circumstances of their friendship.
But when Bruno’s away from the camp and we’re reduced to gaping in ironic amazement as his sister lines her wall with Hitler posters or when a young soldier callously remarks on the stench of burning bodies, the film runs into some rather greater difficulties. Then its more or less ludicrous conclusion—though partly in keeping with the film’s fable-like logic—attempts to pack all the gravity of the Holocaust into one hysterical sequence, but this very gravity is undercut by Herman’s decision to call on familiar genre tropes for his exposition. So the lead-in to the final moments plays like a heavily crosscut climax to some cheap thriller (or Birth of a Nation for that matter) while a final trip to the gas chamber is like nothing so much as the payoff in a particularly lurid horror flick. At once too historically removed from its subject and too hysterically committed, Boy in the Striped Pajamas isn’t the first movie to miscalculate in its attempts to bring that most unfilmable of historical events to the screen and if this season’s programming is any indication it certainly won’t be the last.