War is bad for children and other living things. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," adapted from John Boyne's book for young readers, makes that age-old argument with unflinching force. The film is emotionally wrenching without stooping to sentimentality or graphic violence.
We know what horrors were inflicted at Auschwitz. The film, told through the eyes of 8-year-old boys on opposite sides of the barbed wire, concentrates on their poignant relationship and lets us fill in the awful details ourselves. By considering how the atrocities of the Third Reich would appear to an innocent child, the film makes us rethink not only the Holocaust, but human nature.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) enters the film arms outstretched and on the run, "flying" through the café tables in his home town square with a squadron of young friends. His carefree imitation of a fighter plane marks him as an observant, sheltered boy who hasn't digested the reality of life in wartime Germany. His mother (Vera Farmiga) is protective, and his father (David Thewlis), a high-ranking Army officer, is a doting but distant authority figure. Asa's older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) might be even more disconnected from reality, unquestioningly swallowing the propaganda spooned out by their tutor and sighing over handsome SS officers.
When father receives a significant promotion, there is a formal party to celebrate the proud occasion. Bruno, our surrogate, mourns the move because he will be leaving his playmates behind. He's too young to understand the true nature of the "farm" near their impressive new home, or why the emaciated manservant who does chores for the family would have left a career as a doctor to rake leaves and dig potatoes. Father, now an important commander who pores over blueprints for mass showers and ovens, kindly, sternly discourages Bruno from being too inquisitive.
Bored boys cannot be contained, however. Bruno's explorations bring him face to face with another kid his age. Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) is weary, dirty and as lonely as Bruno. They meet regularly at a far corner of the concentration camp, and over a summer build a tentative relationship. At an age when all of adult life looks like a huge game of make-believe, the boys begin to puzzle out the reasons for Shmuel's captivity. Since Bruno has been forbidden to roam outside the family compound, he keeps his questions to himself, picking up what clues he can from his parents' discreet conversations. We understand that father and mother are monsters, accomplices in mass murder so that they can live comfortably. To Bruno, they seem -- they are -- loving and solicitous.
The film finds strength in its simplicity and universal significance in its specific focus. Without lecturing, director Mark Herman connects the divide between these two innocents with ethnic bigotries and economic injustices that are still inflamed worldwide. Thewlis and Farmiga are flawless as an upstanding, patriotic couple who have learned to view atrocities as a patriotic duty. Fiends rarely show themselves as fiends or consider their cruelty abnormal.
Young Scanlon and Butterfield are scathingly effective, never overplaying their roles. You know going in that a story like this one can't end well, but as Herman torques up the suspense in the excruciating final scenes, you may be shocked at how very disturbing an honest, uncompromised finale can feel.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186