The Holocaust is a touchy subject and one that has been visited a number of times by Hollywood. Arguably the most well-known and respected tale, is Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, "Schindler's List." Arguably a modern epic, it is often unfairly used as a standard to judge other Holocaust films. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is not an epic tale of one of the darkest periods in history; it is a simple tale of childish innocence set amongst horrific circumstances, and it's simplicity is what earns it the acclaim it deserves.
Released this past year, the film was one of four major Holocaust/Nazi related films and unfortunately, the one that received the least attention (the Oscar nominated "Reader" and pedestrian mass-market thrillers, "Valkyrie" and "Defiance" took the spotlight). I will preface the rest of this review: to overly analyze this film is to do it a great disservice and it is impossible to analyze it very much without spoiling the film's final act.
The main story follows Bruno (Asa Butterfield) as he moves with his family to the German countryside. Bruno is quickly portrayed as a free-spirited, curious, and innocent boy whose sole love is for adventure books and exploring the world around him. His mother who confines him to the house and front yard of their new home quickly hampers his exploration; this frustrates Bruno who wants to explore the world around him, specifically the farm, visible from his bedroom.
The farm is in fact, a concentration camp, and Bruno's father is the commander. The audience knows this from the beginning, but the tale is told from Bruno's eyes and his innocent view is what is immediately heartbreaking. Eventually, curiosity gets the best of Bruno and, one day, after escaping the watchful eye of his mother (Vera Farmiga in an amazing supporting performance), Bruno visits the farm and meets, Shmuel (John Scanlon), the film's titular character. With the innocence and kindness only a child could possess, the naive Bruno quickly finds a friend in Shmuel.
The irony of this friendship, is despite, we the viewer knowing the horror lurking on Shmuel's side of the fence, Bruno is blissfully unaware of the camp's true nature and the fact that his father is in charge of it all. The real horror for Bruno lies at home, where he is witness to intense verbal battles between his mother and father, a harsh tutor who preaches Nazi ideals to he and his highly impressionable young sister, and the embodiment of Nazi cruelty, his father's aide, Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend).
Bruno remains the strongest, taking in the tutor's hateful teachings and witnessing the Lieutenant's menacing violence, but shunning them once he is free to explore and spend, brief, but precious time with his new friend.
Mark Herman's direction is solid and never obtrusive, as is his screenplay, adapted from John Boyne's novel. The dialogue has a few cliché moments, but nothing to drag the film down as a whole. The film's second strongest point, next to Asa's and Shmuel's innocence, is the way Herman lets unspoken images speak for themselves. No words can come close to moving the viewer the way Bruno (and we) first meet Shmuel. We share Bruno's shock at the sight of a small boy hiding from the horrors behind him, head hanging in defeat. Herman's direction is complemented by an average to above average score by James Horner. Initially it is very uninspired but the more Bruno strays from his own home/prison, the more the score comes alive with him.
I stop short of discussing details of the film's final act, but it would be pure negligence for me to not warn of the film's intense thematic content. Despite sporting a PG-13 rating and, according to the author and director, that it is for children, the film may be too much for many viewers to handle, given it does take place in/around a concentration camp. The film's final act does amp up the intensity and I feel strays very close to R territory; the final act is also the sole reason I see the film having limited replay value for the average viewer. For parents wanting to share this tale with their children (mostly those under 13), watch the film on your own and then consider your decision.
At the end of the day, the story of childhood innocence and unprejudiced friendship is what moved me most and what would give me reason to revisit the film in the future. I sincerely hope, that in the future, audiences will discover this overlooked film, lost in the shuffle of big budget, Hollywood flair.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is very solid with no noticeable technical problems. The color is well balanced with no bleeding; artistically the palette ranges from vibrant beauty to a dreary and depressing. There isn't a tremendous amount of detail scene in faces and this is the transfer's only downfall, but could be an artistic choice.
The film is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and is a serviceable track for the style of film. Heavily dialogue driven, the center and front channels get the most work out, with the rears popping up to flesh out the soundtrack and ambience. English captions for the hearing impaired and Spanish subtitles are also present.
The film sports three extras, the best of which is a feature length commentary with writer/director Mark Herman and the author of the original novel, John Boyne. It's a good track with both sharing their thoughts on the film and pointing out differences from the novel. The other two extras are a set of deleted scenes, which also feature the same duo on optional commentary. These scenes are mostly from the film's first and second act and were wisely left on the cutting room floor. The optional commentary does reveal spoilers about the film so interested parties should keep that in mind. Lastly, is a 20 min featurettes titles "Behind the Fence," which is a standard talking head/promotional piece that also features spoilers. Cast and crew alike are interviewed and share their thoughts on the original story and film. It's worth watching at least once as it does highlight the cast and crew's respect for the story being told.
A beautiful (and at times, horrific) film, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is worth your time, if for nothing else to remind you that even in the cruelest of scenarios, innocence can remain. The overall DVD package is very well put together; the extras, while sparse compared to other releases, is quality over quantity (a good commentary trumps hours of PR pieces in my book), and the sound and video are top notch. I must reiterate, that the film's PG-13 rating is highly misleading, but that aside I have no problem giving the DVD a hearty recommendation. Highly Recommended.