The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this intense World War II-set drama follows a young boy whose father, a German officer, has moved the entire family close to his new assignment -- running a death camp dedicated to the mass extermination and murder of Jewish prisoners. The boy befriends a prisoner on the other side of the wire even as his teachers and parents explain to him about how "the Jew" is the enemy. Given the subject matter, the film -- which culminates in a room full of people being killed with poison gas -- could be difficult to watch for viewers of any age. There's also some drinking and smoking and concentration camp violence.
What's the story?
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy growing up in Berlin with his sister, mother (Vera Farmiga), and father (David Thewlis) -- but that all changes when his father gets a new post in the country. From his window, Bruno can now see people toiling at the distant facility where his father works -- farmers, as near as he can tell, tending a garden, and all wearing "striped pajamas." We soon understand what Bruno does not -- that his father's new post is at a death camp dedicated to the extermination of Jewish prisoners. Sneaking out of the family's house and through the back woods to the camp, Bruno meets a young boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and the two become friends -- as Bruno comes to understand why Shmuel is on the other side of the wire.
Is it any good?
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.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about what teens know about the Holocaust. What upset them in the movie? Why?
Ask your kids whether they think people can be good and evil at the same time. Then you can go into the discussion of how the Holocaust was kept secret. Was it actually hidden, or did people know and simply look the other way?
Families can also discuss what keeps drawing filmmakers and audiences to this subject material.