The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
So I guess a game of Red Rover is going to be kinda awkward?

Theatrical Release Date: 11/14/2008
Director: Mark Herman
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis

Hovering around arthouse theaters is “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. The title is a reference to a Jewish boy in a concentration camp befriended by a like-aged German whose father is a high-ranking Nazi.

Obviously this is heady stuff to be dealing with and I give much credit to Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon who play the two boys. Too often, it’s hard to find child actors with both dramatic ability and the presence of a real kid – not some older actor playing young. Both of the boys manage to make their characters seem genuine, innocent and vulnerable in every way asked of them by the script.

The adult actors are another story, however. I am a fan of both David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga but apparently combining their talents with director Mark Herman’s sensibility created an overly melodramatic presentation. I don’t want to be quite this rude but their actions were almost like watching a soap opera, especially in comparison to the boys who found a better tone to their performances.

Not helping things at all is that the filmmakers decided to go ahead and let everyone use their British accents. Look, I realize financing a film isn’t easy but in very briefly skimming the trailer before the screening, I thought there would be some more conflict because this British man had been called home to the Fatherland to serve in Germany’s war machine. That it all takes place in Germany and all the Germans speak like they’re from London … well, it’s off-putting to say the least.

I also have some issues with the seeming lack of difficulty involved for the two boys to chat across the electified barb-wire but every movie needs a suspension of disbelief so I won’t get too worked up over this.

The gut-wrenching element of the film is that Butterfield never really seems to understand why his new friend is wearing such strange pajamas – that is to say, why a camp like his exists. A tutor is brought into the house to teach the children about the German war effort and he makes it all too clear how Nazis feel about the Jews. Still, right up to the end, Butterfield maintains an air of childlike innocence and naivety that could be seen as ridiculously improbable but works well enough in the context of the story.

Although “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is yet another film about the Holocaust, I will give it credit for using a less common story angle and concentrating on the two boys. It provided a different perspective which is nice in a genre audiences see every year, multiple times. Still, this is a heavy film, as the subject material is only made more grim using two children as the central figures, so don’t expect to come out of the theater ready for a nice afternoon picnic. In fact, I might advise those of you desperate for warm and fuzzy endings to move along to another film (like the upcoming “Slumdog Millionaire”).

Trying to put it all together, the melodramatic acting and English accents sunk what could have been such a more poignant tale and I’m really only giving “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” a passing 3 out of 5 because the story resolution is powerful (aside from the over acting from the adults). I never read the book though I’ve heard this is a departure somewhat from it so for all the rest of you non-literate folks like me, your decision to catch this is probably best left to your gut instinct.

There are far better films dealing with the Holocaust (“The Pianist”, “Schindler’s List”) but if you are looking for something in this genre right now, and can get past the Germans with English accents, I could see the rationale for seeing this film – if not on the big screen, maybe once it hits the DVD shelves.