Endearing Boyhood Drama Sees Nazi-Camp Horrors Through the Wire

    The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
    {grate 2.5}
    Starring Asa Butterfield, Vera Farminga & David Thewlis
    Directed by Mark Herman
    Rated R

    The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” Mark Herman’s 2008 adaptation of John Boyne’s popular novel, glosses Holocaust horrors through the lens of 8-year-old naif Bruno (Asa Butterfield), born to a Nazi commanding general in the throes of war-torn Germany. As his father has just been promoted, Bruno is whisked from the urban milieu of early childhood to a new life waxed in austere sterility at “Out-With” — properly pronounced Auschwitz.

    Bruno spends most of his days lonesome for the affections of his Nazi-sympathizing sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) and kind-enough mother (Vera Farmiga), until the day Bruno stumbles across the concentration-camp gates — containing, he imagines, a strange farm on which everyone wears striped pajamas. Through the electric fence the little prince befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who becomes Bruno’s only friend — and ambassador to a reality beyond his cozy doormat.

    “Pajamas” is a well-crafted piece carried by a simple and striking score from James Horner, notably resilient from beginning to end. Cinemographic hues are adjusted in accordance with scene progression to emphasize Bruno’s departure from the stunning, rich world he’s always known to the bleak, gray swaths of “Out-With.” Likewise, each set is ornately constructed, accentuating the contrast between daily life for outskirting Germans and the emptiness within Auschwitz and the too-many more dark corners of the Holocaust.

    Translating such a well-known and horrific history through a child’s eyes allows “Pajamas” a well-executed thematic delicacy. For that, the absurd logic on which the Holocaust was based is stripped of its angry glare, painted with a softer brush more innocent than preachy and rendering a more effective (if somewhat juvenile) retrospective message.

    These themes avoid oversimplicification — thankfully, so as issues of hatred, genocide and the role of the “innocent” bystander are some of the most complicated — instead thoroughly explored through characters like Bruno’s mother. Deeply torn between loyalty to her husband, defending her state and what she knows to be right, Farmiga’s performance is cuttingly realistic and ultimately one of the film’s finest hallmarks.

    While the “Pan’s Labyrinth” vein of childish understanding is the guiding strength here, it’s also the principal undoing. In covering a historical issue so frequently revisited in film and literature, successful explorations necessitate a new perspective. And although the obscuring (or purifying) veil of childhood seems ideal, a somewhat “Forrest Gump” approach of simplistic, unsophisticated dialogue can’t help but swamp any hope for complex realism — “Pajamas” gives childhood a kitschy naivete spelled out in strictly subject-verb-object sentences. Though it’s lovely to imagine the Holocaust from an untainted point of view, it’s insulting to youth to suggest it as a disability preventing any critical engagement in one’s surroundings.

    In this way, it’s the script that pulls down the set, a flurry of misguided adult efforts at screenwriting as if they were children, and ultimately failing to imagine that experience as anything more than the fantasia of a “Bambi”-eyed dreamer. Admiration of the film’s aesthetic beauty is helplessly coupled with frustration with unrealistic dialogue, childishly diluting a complex plot and shearing off a key subtlety begged of any Holocaust invocation.

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