Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows
John Betjeman’s quote opens the film version of The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, and immediately sets up a sense of dread for its adult viewers. For a moment, try to imagine you’d read, seen or heard nothing about World War II and The Holocaust. The conflict between that ignorant bliss and our adult historical understanding is a key concept of this moving and powerful piece of cinema.
The central character is Bruno, a 9-year-old boy who lives in the affluent part of Berlin in the early 1940s. His father is an officer in the German Army, and their house is richly appointed with luxuries and servants. Bruno runs freely through the streets with his friends, ignoring the army trucks, pretending to be heroes of the Luftwaffe.
Then one day there is to be a party at their house. All the furniture is moved away. Strangers fill every room and his Father announces they are moving to the country, as he has been promoted; still a soldier, but now ‘a more important one’.
Their new house is isolated, and in contrast to their opulent townhouse, it’s a bleak modernist structure, sparsely decorated and empty. From his window Bruno can see people ‘wearing pyjamas’ who seem to work on a nearby farm. Bruno’s parents forbid him from even talking to them. The dashing young Lieutenant Kotler – a vision of Aryan Youth if ever there was one – is contemptuous of them. But Pavel, one of the servants in pyjamas, seems kind and helps him when he falls from his swing.
Bruno escapes the confines of his home and discovers a boy named Shmuel, who sits behind a wire fence, but also works in the house. They strike up a friendship…
…and slowly the full horror of The Holocaust is revealed.
Bruno’s tutor instructs him that ‘the Jew’ is responsible for all that’s wrong in the world. His father ignores the brutality Kotler metes out against Pavel. His mother starts to turn against her husband and seems to sink into despair at what his new promotion involves. He starts to question and doubt, but still cannot grasp what is occuring.
But of course, why should he? I find it hard to imagine what it would be like for my daughter (only slightly younger than Bruno) to watch this film. How could she even begin to understand such cruelty? And when she asks ‘WHY?’, what on earth could I say? Of course, as adult viewers we understand only too well what is happening, which fills every incident with a menace and threat that Bruno only slowly begins to notice.
Asa Butterfield is outstanding as Bruno: at the heart of the film, his performance is filled with innocence and charm, which makes it all the more moving as we understand what is happening. David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga are also excellent as his parents, with Rupert Friend as Kotler and Jack Scanlon as Shmuel providing strong support.
There is a requirement for the viewer to suspend their disbelief within this storytelling. It’s surely unlikely that the boys’ meetings at the wire would have been possible, and the final sequence contains many creative and dramatic liberties. However, within this story it’s also a natural but horrific extension of Bruno’s ambitions to explore, and to help his new friend. The final scenes have stayed with me for days.
In its depiction of the effects of war upon children and the destruction of innocence, it’s right up there with the terrific but devastating Grave of The Fireflies. We feel shattered for what happens for these characters, but in that very reaction we are forced to confront the enormity of the unknown slaughtered millions.
This is a film that younger viewers should see, but I’m still at a loss as to how I could introduce it to my children, even in a few years’ time.