THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS, based on John Boyne's novel, is a quietly effective, tastefully crafted, and ultimately devastating portrait of the Holocaust as seen through one boy's eyes. Directed by Mark Herman (Hope Springs, Little Voice), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas pulls off a hard-to-imagine balance between the innocence and optimism of children and the evil and darkness of modern history's greatest crime. As Bruno, Butterfield is on-screen in almost every scene, and viewers see the world through his eyes -- as well as his confusion as he comes to truly see the world. "We're not supposed to be friends, you and me," Bruno notes to Shmuel through electrified barbed wire. "We're supposed to be enemies." Bruno can't understand what's going on; what The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows us is how the grown-ups in Bruno's life (played superbly by Farmiga and Thewlis) are just as capable of deluding themselves about what's really going on at the camp.
At the same time, Bruno isn't a cardboard innocent; he acts selfishly, speaks unthinkingly, and betrays Shmuel in a moment of fear. Herman's direction is never sentimental and yet always sensitive, thoughtful but never flashy, and acutely aware of the dramatic and moral stakes on the table. We only see the mechanisms of mass extermination in one scene; the rest of the film just hints and suggests what's really going on at the camp (which, while unnamed, is clearly Auschwitz) -- which in many ways is more terrifying than more explicit scenes. When Farmiga's character recoils at a rank plume of smoke coming from the camp's chimneys, a young officer smirks: "They smell even worse when they burn, don't they?" and Farmiga's face collapses under the weight of realization; she had no idea. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas builds to a brutal, haunting finale that doesn't let innocence, love, or friendship save the day and sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.