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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas(2008)
Set during World War II, a story seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a concentration camp, whose forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and unexpected consequences.
For more about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray release, see the The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on July 17, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Asa Butterfield, Rupert Friend, David Hayman, Sheila Hancock
Director: Mark Herman
» See full cast & crew
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray Review
"What did you do in the war, Daddy?"
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, July 17, 2011
Part of the problem with really grasping the enormity of a calamity like the Holocaust is the tragedy's sheer size and scope. Sure, it's "easy" to talk about six million Jews and other ethnic and sexual minorities wiped off the face of the earth due to Nazi atrocities, but it somehow doesn't seem real. Even the best intentioned Hollywood treatments of the horrors of the Holocaust have sometimes seemed too abstract and removed, exercises in emotion, certainly, but perhaps never really fully getting at the core of the essential human tragedy that afflicted so many lives. Though The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has some credibility issues it can't quite overcome, the film is a bracing drama about the Holocaust which succeeds for the oddest of reasons: the essential horror of Nazi concentration camps are almost a sidebar to the central family drama which plays out when a German Commandant named Ralf (David Thewlis) transports his wife Elsa (Vera Farmiga) and two young children, Gretel (Amber Beattie) and Bruno (Asa Butterfield) from the urban sophistication of Berlin to an unnamed sylvan backwater in the German hinterlands where Ralf has taken over the local "work camp." Impressionable young Bruno, a lad of eight who considers himself the world's next great explorer, is fascinated by the "farmers" in the strange striped clothing whom he can spy if he stands on his very most tippy-toes and peers out of his bedroom window past the sheltering trees. That sets into motion a cascading series of events which snowballs toward tragedy, a tragedy which while emotionally devastating is perhaps the film's weakest element. Based on a number one international bestseller by Irish author John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is notable for seeing the devastation of war generally, and specifically the hideous horrors of the Holocaust in particular, through the eyes of a young child, and it is in that element that the film really finds its most distinctive and effective voice.
There's no mistaking that seductive, deep crimson red color that fills the screen as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens, and so it's no big surprise when the camera pulls back to reveal a Nazi flag billowing in the breeze. And yet here is where writer-director Herman pulls the first of several rather subtle sleights of hand. This is not some fevered dreamscape from the febrile imaginations of Adolf Hitler or Albert Speer; no, this is instead a scene of everyday Germans going about their everyday business. Shopkeepers tend to customers, people loll about in the afternoon sun, and suddenly a gaggle of young boys pretending to be planes runs down a gorgeous Berlin street. There's little hint of Holocaust in these images, and in fact it instantly presents us with a conundrum central to The Boy in Striped Pajama's success or failure, namely, can a tale even tangentially linked to the Holocaust be told from a point of view sympathetic to the Germans?
The saving grace of The Boy in Striped Pajama's perspective is that it is told largely from the point of view of eight year old Bruno, a kid who doesn't quite have a firm idea of why his country has charged into various of its neighbors' territories, much less why it is systemically murdering scores of its own citizens. And so when his father is promoted, despite the passing sadness of having to leave their palatial Berlin mansion which is often full of Bruno's visiting young friends, there's a nervous excitement about new adventures just around the corner.
Some critics, even some Jewish groups, have derided The Boy in Striped Pajamas for some of its central plot conceits, most notably that Bruno soon meets a young eight year old Jewish boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) imprisoned in the camp that Bruno's father commands. Some have averred that any Jews unable to work were immediately gassed, and that evidently included most children, while others insist that children were indeed interred at these horrible places. Be that as it may, the film actually has a more pressing strain on its credulity, simply the fact that this particular camp (evidently modeled on Auschwitz) has a "far corner" without a guard tower where Shmuel hides out and where Bruno, on one of his exploring missions which has actually been forbidden by his concerned mother, stumbles onto the boy.
The film manages to skirt at least some of the uneasiness of seeing a story like this told through the eyes of a German by having Bruno be so utterly naïve. The film's other saving grace is the character of Bruno's mother, Elsa, the other outright sympathetic German character in the film. Elsa actually traverses the most radical character arc in the film, starting out as the adoring, supportive wife of a promoted officer, then slowly becoming more uneasy, and ultimately unhinged, over what is going on basically next door to her new home. As pat as the use of these two characters may be, at least within the larger, real life context of Germans either claiming to have "known nothing" about the atrocities, or, more likely, having swallowed the Kool-Aid lock, stock and barrel and careened down the path toward collective calamity, within the context of the film, it works quite well, especially given the expert acting of both Farmiga and a rather astoundingly brilliant Butterfield.
What the film actually can't overcome is its patently melodramatic finale, which I won't spoil for those who want to be shocked and saddened beyond belief. I've heard from several who saw this film theatrically that it had a devastating effect on its audiences, and that the closing credits regularly played to absolute silence as people attempted to regain their equilibrium. And while it can't be denied that the film has an incredible visceral impact in its final moments, once one has the chance to catch one's breath and actually think about how various plot strands play out, there are gaping holes not only in logic but also in the film's emotional honesty. While trying not to spoil too much, aside from the sheer improbability of what goes down in the film's closing moments, despite the shock value and emotional trauma inflicted, there's a certain "now the shoe's on the other foot" aspect to it all that makes the shock value lessen once it's actually examined rationally.
Despite these very real flaws, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is certainly one of the most interesting films dealing with the Holocaust in recent memory. More circuitous than Spielberg's Schindler's List, and in fact perhaps more emotionally reminiscent of much earlier films like The Pawnbroker, this is a film that has a completely unique point of view and which, as bizarre as this comparison may sound, manages to recreate the wonder and terror of childhood as aptly as To Kill a Mockingbird. The abstract suddenly becomes chillingly personal when we experience the horrors of war through the eyes of a child, and it is in that portrayal that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas becomes most meaningful and approaches the unforgettable.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is presented on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1. The entire film has been variously filtered and post-processed toward the yellow end of the spectrum (it's rather bracing to see the raw, more accurately colored, deleted scenes for a nice comparison). Having pushed the film ever so slightly, director Herman and DP Benoit Delhomme also deal with some contrast issues, especially in some of the golden-hued outdoor shots. All of this said, the Blu-ray sports excellent to actually exceptional fine detail, though it also suffers from fairly regular crush in some of the darker interior scenes. While everything is bathed in saffron, colors within that filtering are good and varied and the film boasts at least average sharpness and clarity, though the filtering tends to lend a hazy layer to the proceedings which some may mistake for softness.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is offered with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is rather conservative in terms of surround activity, but which features stellar fidelity. This largely quiet, dialogue driven film has few opportunities for big immersive moments, and in fact one of the few really immersive moments comes early in the film, during the promotion party for Bruno's father. Crowd noises are scattered throughout the surrounds, and the live band's music is gently filtered around the soundfield giving a really nice recreation of the ambience of the huge room where the party is taking place. Occasionally we get other nice use of discrete channels, usually for relatively subtle effects like the guards whistling to return the Jewish workers to their barracks. But while there may not be an outright glut of surround activity here, everything sounds very good, with excellent reproduction of all frequency ranges.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a lot going for it, and it may in fact be a very worthy way to introduce younger audiences to the horrors of the Holocaust, as it doesn't feature much overt violence and also offers a nice hook for youngsters in that it's told from the perspective of an eight year old. But the film really doesn't hold up to a reasoned examination once it's over, despite its very visceral shock value in its final moments. Does that defeat the film's purpose? Is it even possible to craft a film about the Holocaust told from a German point of view? It's to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' credit that it at least has the courage to try, and the fact that it succeeds at all, if not in total, is something of a minor miracle. Highly recommended.
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