Nazi movies were popular among filmmakers in the latter half of 2008, but several flew in under the radar. One such film was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a movie that is not a biopic about Michael Jackson but about two young boys who become friends, despite one being the son of a soldier and the other an imprisoned Jew. As can be expected, it's a cheerful movie with a happy ending.
The movie, directed by Mark Herman, follows Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an innocent kid who has moved into a new home with his soldier father (David Thewlis). As he soon discovers, they are located near a concentration camp, though his naïve sensitivities haven't taught him the meaning of such things. He soon befriends a young boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a prisoner at the camp. As their relationship develops, tensions grow within the family as the truth and consequences of Bruno's father's work become apparent.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas never looked very good to me, and so I put off seeing it despite its surprisingly long run in theaters (long for a movie playing on one screen in Seattle) and my mother's pleas to go see it. The picture just had a throwaway look to it, and it seemed more like a cutesy story than a serious drama.
The direction by Mark Herman is the reason; the film is very simple, but not in an independent kind of way. It just isn't very dynamic or fluid, and the look of it could easily be duplicated in a TV movie. There's nothing exceptional about the film work. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is and never was an Oscar contender, and for what it's worth, restricted by those limitations, the movie is surprisingly good.
Both child actors do an exceptional job in the respective roles; their friendship is believable and enjoyable. The other characters are a bit one-dimensional, though the sister shows some complexity. Thewlis delivers a good performance nonetheless, though it's hard to see him as anything more than a Nazi who is gassing Jews. Vera Farmiga gets to show some range, but her role is a bit thankless.
At only 94 minutes, Striped Pajamas moves along at a fast pace and is an enjoyable and entertaining film. The development of the boys' relationship is fun to watch, and the slow realization that Bruno and the rest of his family have toward the father's actual nature is quite good. All in all, it's a well-told little story, even if the direction isn't anything fancy.
For a concentration camp movie, Striped Pajamas is pretty lighthearted - until the ending. The movie packs a punch and will leave some people crying. That being said, I found the ending to be a little contrived; things go bad so quickly and conveniently that it seems like an easy out. There isn't much time for a reflection, and it's pretty shocking how suddenly the movie ends.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, despite all of its flaws, is an enjoyable, almost-heartwarming film that is equally depressing when all is said and done. While I'd recommend the picture, it would have been much better with another half an hour to develop the supporting characters and make a more layered story.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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