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November 19, 2008 | Comments ()


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A Handy-Dandy Guide to Watching a Holocaust Fable

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas / John Williams

Film Reviews | November 19, 2008 | Comments ()


Almost every time, I try to avoid reading other reviews of a movie before I write my own. The reasons for this are obvious. (I also try not to start reviews with distracting first-person anecdotes; I’m asking for slack on a few levels here, I realize.) But faced with considering The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it was just too tempting to take a quick tour of opinion, because it seems that reviews of movies about the Holocaust, especially when children are involved, turn into reviews of the genre, rather than the specific movie in question.

And sure enough, there’s outrage aplenty over Pajamas, which was adapted from a book of the same name by John Boyne. The film sent the normally thoughtful Manohla Dargis into such a paroxysm that she filed what must be on a short list of the laziest reviews in New York Times history. (If you fear considerable spoilers, please don’t read her review.)

The last time that film critics were luckily around to remind us that the Holocaust was a bad thing was the release of Life is Beautiful. Some of the most vitriolic complaints about that movie, which were abundant, willfully missed the point. It was the story of a man (played by Roberto Benigni) who knows — like the audience — that what is happening is not funny in the least, but he is unable to confront this fact with (or for) his young son. One might think that cowardly of him. One might hate the movie, even. But it is not fundamentally unserious. Perspective being crucial in any art form, it’s fair to note that it wasn’t Benigni’s movie. It was the boy’s.

The perspective of Pajamas is harder to identify, and it complicates things, but more on that in a moment. The story involves eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who lives with his family in a luxurious home in Berlin. His father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi officer. When the party promotes him to oversee a work camp, the family leaves its lively home for a lonely, heavily secured compound in the countryside. Without friends, Bruno and his sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), cope in different ways. Gretel decorates her room with Hitler memorabilia like he’s Hannah Montana, and the adventure-loving Bruno sneaks away to investigate the nearby “farm.”

At the farm/camp, Bruno befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a fellow eight-year-old who wears striped pajamas/Nazi-issued work uniform and steals away from his fellow prisoners each day to hide out in a corner behind some rubble. Through the barrier of an electrified barbed-wire fence, the two talk and become friends.

Herewith, a guide to what should — and what should not — outrage you about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:


Things Which Should Provoke Outrage.

The British accents. The book’s author is British, the cast is British, the movie was produced, in part, by BBC Films. Given those facts, the accents make perfect sense. But that ignores the additional, perhaps-inconvenient-but-unavoidable fact that the characters in question are not only German, but in many cases Nazis. And, with apologies for stating the obvious, the Nazis and the British weren’t really chummy during that period. They weren’t really interchangeable. Which makes hearing the British tones throughout the movie more cognitively dissonant an experience than I prefer.

The stupidity of the characters. Bruno’s cluelessness is an important part of the plot, but it would have been more fitting if he were, say, six instead of eight. His initial confusion is fine, but for a kid who has passed the age of reason, he’s got to be pretty thick to take as long with the puzzle as he does. Gretel’s stupidity also rankles, but more in a budding-Ann-Coulter kind of way.

The lack of a clear target audience. Trying to figure out who the movie is meant for hurts the brain. I left the theater about 20 hours ago, and I still have no idea. It can’t be meant for very young children, because it’s not appropriate. It can’t be meant — at least purely — for adults, because it too often adopts an unknowing child’s perspective for dramatic purposes. It could perhaps be pitched to highly childish, historically curious but essentially ignorant, morally hazy 13- and 14-year-olds, but that’s a pretty narrow slice. Intent shouldn’t carry the day, but solving this mystery would help to place the movie more accurately somewhere on the spectrum between Condescending Pap and Brave Kiddie-Art.

Things Which Should Not Provoke Outrage.

Fictional liberties. Especially if Pajamas is more or less a fable (and good luck arguing that it’s anything else), it does not matter that: a) a child could not hide on the edge of a camp, unseen by guards; b) no one could crawl under the barbed wire of said camp, in either direction; or c) Bruno would most likely have been a Hitler Youth in real life. (There’s a d. through z., but this is already running long.) The Holocaust having been real and horrific is reason to watch for gross violation of the facts — if a movie portrayed it as an event in which a total of three Australians were killed by an army of British Jews, I’d be hand-lettering and distributing the picket signs myself. But it seems disingenuous to wring hands over typical Hollywood contrivances when countless other real-life tragedies and dramas are given a similar gloss nearly every week.

The ending. It won’t be revealed here, but the ending is, for lack of a better term, perversely creative. It requires a massive suspension of disbelief, but it still packs a punch. Well, more can’t be said without spoiling it.

Armed with this handy guide, you can go see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas — bringing with you whoever the hell it’s intended for — without fear of moral confusion or misplaced outrage. Don’t thank me. As a film critic faced with Holocaust-based material, trust me, it’s the least I could do.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.



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