“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
At the Michigan Theater, Quality 16 and Showcase
3.5 out of 5 Stars
When Adrien Brody majestically played Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1” for Captain Wilm Hosenfeld in “The Pianist,” he revealed the simple kind of humanity that can be found amid historical chaos. It may be tempting to guess that “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” follows the typical Holocaust movie formula too closely. But sometimes the stories “Boy” evokes are too heartbreaking for the big screen.
Beautiful moments and ideas can rise from emotional and physical catastrophe, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” contains a great deal — a sad, simple and poignant story.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield, “Son of Rambow”), is an eight-year-old boy who moves from Berlin to the countryside when his father is promoted in the Nazi army. Not far from his new house, he discovers a “farm” where “strange farmers” work wearing “striped pajamas.” Bruno’s curiosity leads him to what is later revealed to be a concentration camp. Sitting on the other side of the camp’s electric barbed-wire fence is Shmuel (newcomer Jack Scanlon), another eight-year-old boy, to whom Bruno takes a liking. The rest of the story revolves around their developing friendship and Bruno’s discovery that the fence is not the only thing separating him from Shmuel.
The film is gorgeously shot and designed by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (“The Proposition”), and it shows in Bruno’s new house in the country. Nothing like his stylish Berlin residence, it emanates a sense of imprisonment and secrecy with its gray colors and rigid, square features.
The most meaningful scenes are those involving the two boys sitting face to face with the fence separating them; the juxtaposition of two different worlds is both simple and magnificent. Bruno is dressed in his tailored clothing and has neatly parted hair. Behind him is a lush, green forest. Shmuel, on the other hand, is shaved and wears a prisoner’s uniform several sizes too big for him. The land on which he and the other Jewish prisoners work is dusty and dead. This scenic backdrop plays a crucial role in the film’s sense of ominousness.
In addition to the effective imagery, the performances are strikingly memorable. At eight years old, Bruno is a difficult leading role to pull off. But Butterfield plays the part with astounding poise and sense. In his bright, blue eyes rests the emotion and fortitude needed to play a child whose innocence is slowly being stripped from him. His mother (Vera Farmiga, “The Departed”) does a superb job in a supporting role, exhibiting an emotional metamorphosis as the movie progresses.
Despite it’s many successes, the movie’s ending proves to be somewhat of a letdown. The movie loses focus and decides to take a tangential path that, while still emotional, feels like it was taken for the wrong reasons. It’s a bit too unsettling, especially for young audience members. Using shock value for Oscar contention is a tactic unfit for this level of historical importance.