You could easily pigeonhole Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as simply one more cinematic lamentation of the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Based on a novel by John Boyne, it’s the story of a German family uprooted from its lovely manse in Berlin to a stark fortress in the countryside when Father (David Thewlis), a German officer, is appointed commandant of a concentration camp. Dreamy Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the family’s younger child, initially hates the move away from his comfortable home and playmates in the city. But his high spirits return when he strikes up a clandestine friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy whom he visits every day at camp’s edge. The two youngsters are bound in spirit but forever separated by an electric barbed-wire fence.
Countless films have dealt with similar subject matter and the attendant moral implications—that hatred and bigotry are parasites that leech the essence of human spirit, that good people must be ever wary of the evil that lives in human hearts. The Nazi regime provides a particularly pointed illustration, irresistible to filmmakers and fabulists alike, of why these truths are eternal. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas dutifully strikes the proper notes, in that respect, and it does so effectively. It’s hard to think of a more potent cinematic image than that of pink-faced Bruno in his clean white shirt and pressed knickers, sitting cross-legged in the dirt across an imposing steel-wire fence from grubby little Shmuel, shaven and snaggletoothed in wretched prison clothes, his sad cheeks sunken with hunger and fatigue.
But though the horrors of the Holocaust bear repeating, they have been repeated, and often. Herman seems cognizant that the territory has been well-trod, and thus his film has another, less obvious layer, easy to miss when you’re caught up in the emotional sway of the storyline. Unlike most other Holocaust movies, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offers incisive character study. With shrewdness and subtlety, it musters some kind of answer to the oft-posed but rarely essayed question of how an entire nation could be co-opted by a venal fraternity of collectivists and their brutal philosophy of eugenics.
There is only one character in Striped Pajamas who seems wholly and unrepentantly evil. His name is Kotler (Rupert Friend), and he a square-jawed, sadistic young lieutenant under Father’s command. In the film’s most powerful scene, set around the family dinner table where Kotler is a guest, the wellspring of his Nazi fervor comes to light under the angry questioning of Bruno’s father. The tension builds, with each badgering query, to a point where Kotler’s unhappy truth is outed, and it finds release only through a violent outburst directed toward an innocent bystander.
Later, karma finds Kotler, leading him to flash the smallest glimpse of his long-buried humanity. While we don’t forgive his transgressions, we at least begin to understand them. Beneath his cruel exterior, he is really more boy than man, a boy run feverishly amok on fear and insecurity, who can only begin to comprehend that which drives him to find solace in a brutal conformity.
And ultimately it is fear—of being different, of social sanction, of government reprisal, of abandoning the comfortable shelter of one’s own long-held beliefs—that runs through nearly all of the film’s leading players. Extrapolate those fears across an entire society, and it’s not hard to recognize the bedrock of safety-as-conformity underlying the Nazi regime.
Father, for instance, has all the makings of a good man, in a different film. He is a decent husband, a kindly parent, and devoted to his job. His job just happens to be that of an officer in Nazi Germany, recently appointed head of its most notorious prison camp. In short, he is a man for whom stepping out of line would yield unthinkable consequences, and thus it never so much as crosses his mind.
Bruno’s Mother (Vera Farmiga) is a more complicated study. Long held in check by socialization, and her own fears, she distances herself emotionally and intellectually from the plight of the Jews, in dramatic contrast to the sweetness she exhibits with her children. But when she learns the extent of the horrors being perpetrated at her husband’s camp, she is repelled and angry and grows ever more unhinged. In the end, she makes what protest she can, though it’s little enough.
Then there is Bruno’s older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), whose budding nationalist sentiments are only magnified by a schoolgirl crush on the zealot Kotler. But by film’s end, what she’s seen at Father’s camp, and the devastating effect it’s had on her family’s morale, deliver her into chronic uncertainty, a crisis of faith likely to change her life in ways she could scarcely conceive.
Only Bruno—save for a single moment of weakness—consistently acts according to his best instincts, heedless of attempts to persuade him otherwise. His favorite books, he says, are adventure books, full of tales about heroes and explorers. He fancies himself an explorer, in fact, and rightly recognizes that the explorer’s defining quality is an open-hearted curiosity that utterly banishes fear.
That quality is one which also leads The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to its twist—and twisted—conclusion, a shocking denouement that may seem utterly bleak and terrible to some moviegoers. Should that be the case, one ought to think again. Because there’s a tragic beauty, and even a sense of hope to be found in the brutal finish—hope in the notion that one good-hearted boy might conquer fear with love, and remind all of us what it means to be brave.