Poignancy, Shock in Holocaust Drama 'Boy in Striped Pajamas'

Review: add "Boy in the Striped Pajamas" to canon created by "Schindler's List."

Nov. 8, 2008 — -- "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" adds another poignant tale to the canon of Holocaust movies.

Though not as epic as "Schindler's List," this story about the wartime experiences of two children is more haunting and moving than 1997's "Life Is Beautiful" and is reminiscent of 1987's "Au Revoir, Les Enfants," directed by Louis Malle.

It also is a notably faithful rendering of John Boyne's novel, told from the perspective of a young boy.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is a privileged 8-year-old German child, living an innocently happy and protected life in a sumptuous home in Berlin with his high-ranking soldier father (David Thewlis), elegant mother (Vera Farmiga) and adolescent sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie).

His existence changes drastically when his father is promoted to Nazi commandant and the family must move to the countryside. Leaving his friends and charmed life behind, Bruno grows solitary and lonely.

Gretel embraces the Nazi propaganda she is learning from their tutor and from her infatuation with a soldier (Rupert Friend). Bruno doesn't realize that what he thinks is a nearby farm is actually a concentration camp. Shockingly, neither does his mother.

Disbelief must be suspended for this story to be mesmerizing and unsettling. The acting is so good, the visuals arresting and the story compelling enough to allow one to overlook some inconsistencies or inauthenticities. For instance, all of the principal actors have British accents, not German, and there appears to be shockingly lax security at the concentration camp.

Bruno strikes up a shy, cautious friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his age wearing what Bruno thinks are pajamas. Bruno begins to question his father's Nazi beliefs after witnessing occasional acts of brutal violence. His mother, in a parallel story, also grows increasingly disillusioned as realization dawns.

Viewers should know that the film's resolution, though admirably restrained and unsentimental, is devastatingly sad. Parents should take this into account. This beautifully rendered family film is told in a classic and old-fashioned style, in the best sense, providing poignant and powerful teachable moments.