Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas": Might makes wrong


There are not a lot of films about life for Gentile Germans and how they perceived things during Hitler’s time in power. But “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” directed by Mark Herman, distributed by Miramax, filmed in Hungary with a British cast, and based on the novel by John Boyne, presents the cruelest of possible ironies of karma.

In the DC area, the film is starting with a limited engagement at Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Perhaps the subject matter is so dark that it does need time to build an audience.

As the film opens, a German military family is enjoying a reception in its opulent home, living as well as one could in the 1940s. Father (David Thewlis) has received orders to take over a concentration camp as commandant, and he will move his family. The rest of the family, including his wife (Vera Farmiga) hardly understand what he will be doing. Father is soft-spoken but very set in his loyalty to the Reich. He tells his 8 year old son Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and older sister that life is more about duty than choice. Father tells the kids that he is serving his country so that they will have a “better life.” When grandmother speaks up at the party, Father warns her that she could really get in trouble for what she says in public.

They move, on a train journey (reminding one of what happened to the victims) to the South and East. The new home is a little more Spartan, but Bruno quickly finds that he can see “The Farm” in the distance. His reactions to his discoveries are logical for a bright 8 year old boy who has no indoctrination to politics. His older sister is catching on, and already has Hitler posters in her room. Their hired tutor tells Bruno that he has to read about the “real world.” Pretty soon, the kids are being told by both father and the tutor that the Jews in the concentration camp and who, however haggard, help out in the house as servants (looking like ghouls from a horror film) are “really not people.”

The kid, however is an “explorer” and eventually finds the electric fence on the perimeter, with another 8 year old, Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) playing near it. Bruno wants a friend more than he wants his toys or the material comforts of home. He makes repeated visits and even steals food to bring to Schmuel, able to fool his mother for his adventures. He does not grasp that this is a death camp. Back home, he watches home movies that purport to show that the prisoners are well treated. All of this will lead to tragedy (from the family’s perspective), and irony, if you want to call it that. The climax of the movie, complete with Zytron, reminds one of a scene from “War and Remembrance.”

The movie does not show much of the Nazi “survival of the fittest” mentality among its own people, but a few other foreign films (“Your Unknown Brother”, “Before the Fall” and "The Aryan Couple") did. Here, the Nazi ideology seems focused simply on classifying whole groups of people as enemies. Within the family, however, Father, even when softspoken, guards his own position as if all “morality” in their society was determined by who had earned the right to “power.” "Right and wrong" in their world is determined by the power structure and nothing else; the outside world is to be conquered and otherwise does not matter. No consideration is given the possibility that they could all be very wrong. As it turns out for the kid, his planned life would not have been worth living as a result.

The movie has a piano and orchestra score by James Horner, and most of the music consists of a slow but somber waltz.

IMDB spells the last word in the title with a 'y': "Pyjamas". But the Miramax ad and website gives the title "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Webster's gives only the spelling with the "a".

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