The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a Holocaust fable, is meant to be a heartbreaker about the moral lessons to be gleaned from the friendship of two 8-year-olds, a Jewish concentration-camp inmate named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) and the Nazi commandant's son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield). It plays like a cautionary tale about the perils of naivete. Although John Boyne's book has become a middle-school favorite (and the plot does work better in print), I found the movie impossibly basic and sanitized as a "never again" parable of the Final Solution - and simply wrongheaded as a story about children.
In classic novels by writers as different as Charles Dickens and Henry James, youngsters perceive matters of good and evil or innocence and depravity with keen instincts, even if they don't know how to articulate them or act on what they know. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, though, Bruno is just a bored kid homesick for Berlin when he disobeys his father's orders and makes his way from the commandant's house to the death-camp fence, where he sees Shmuel sitting on the other side. And Shmuel is just a sympathetic blank.
If you can accept the far-fetched notion that the camp would regularly allow a Jew of any age to sojourn by the fence for a lengthy period of time (most young children were killed immediately), the budding friendship between these lads is quasi-believable. There's just one catch: Bruno never realizes the dire nature of the camps and Shmuel - out of what? good manners? - never spells it out for him. When Bruno sneaks a peek at a propaganda film that depicts Shmuel's place as a cozy fresh-air camp for trusted workers - a plum assignment for prized laborers - the little boy swallows it whole. Even though he's seen how sickly the inmates look and how brutally they're treated, he can't wait to get in.
The movie might serve some purpose as a fictionalized primer of insufficient reactions to national atrocities. Bruno's dad (David Thewlis) is a willing executioner. He plots out a swift course for personal success within the Hitler regime, even if it means he must organize vaster and more efficient exterminations of Jews and other supposed state enemies. Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) tries to wall off her husband's actions and protect the sanctity of her family until she realizes, too late, that such a separation is impossible. Bruno's sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), develops a schoolgirl crush on a young officer and the heroic pop imagery of the Third Reich.
Yet even the good things contained within this paradigm, such as Farmiga's portrayal of creeping guilt and growing hatred of her husband, seem to be stuck inside a specimen jar. The movie is too clean in execution, too sloppy in thought. Would a father so intent on deceiving his family about his job permit a Jewish inmate to peel potatoes in his kitchen?
This flaw and others derive from John Boyne's novel, but the author's stylized storytelling is more sure and elegant than director-writer Mark Herman's. The novelist accustoms you to coy word-plays such as "the Fury" for "Fuhrer" and "Out-With" for "Auschwitz" (the movie takes pains not to identify the particular concentration camp at all).
I'd guess some of Boyne's narrative models were literary shockers, like Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." Herman's movie, by contrast, plays like a booby-trapped kiddie film.
But even Boyne's well-written book seems disingenuous to me in its attitude. In an interview appended to the paperback edition, he compares Bruno's gullibility to "the complacency" of German villagers who did nothing when they watched emaciated Jews marching through their hamlets to gather firewood or water.
But were these villagers complacent - or, even worse, accepting? Or had they fallen into a willful state of denial? The Boy in the Striped Pajamas hinges on Bruno's youthful ignorance. But the tragedy of the modern era is not our lack of knowledge about wrongdoing. It's our paralysis in the face of atrocity.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
(Miramax) Starring Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, David Thewlis. Directed by Mark Herman. PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust. Running time 93 minutes.
Michael Sragow is on assignment. His column does not appear today.