Can you make a children’s film about the Holocaust? Isn’t the very idea obscene? Surely the Nazi genocide of European Jews is not a fit subject for family entertainment? Well, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is just such a film and Disney is releasing it in UK cinemas today.
For some people the notion is an abomination. Journalist and novelist Linda Grant has already slammed the film as a Hollywood version of the Holocaust, “literally a Disneyfication”, and she can’t resist the absurdly hyperbolic conjecture, “you wonder whether The Gas Chamber ride is being installed outside Paris.”
I disagree. I think British director Mark Herman’s new film, based on John Boyne’s critically acclaimed book, is moving and thought provoking, and handles its subject matter with great sensitivity. It deserves to be seen by young and old.
At first, however, I had my doubts too. When the film opens, in a painstakingly recreated 1942 Berlin, it looks overly glossy and overly fussy. With Nazi banners on the buildings, uniformed soldiers in the squares, and vintage cars gliding by well-dressed civilians in the streets, the movie has clearly been art directed to the millimetre.
Then we see a young boy whooshing his way past the soldiers and the banners and the cars, arms outstretched and making aeroplane noises. This is eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the movie’s young protagonist, and it’s through his eyes that the story unfolds.
The son of a high-ranking German army officer, Bruno is mightily miffed when his father’s job takes the family away from their grand Berlin mansion to a new home in the country. In this chilly modernist house, Bruno is bored; he misses his friends, doesn’t care for his lessons with a stuffy tutor, and is unimpressed by his elder sister’s hero-worship of their father’s heel clicking blond adjutant.
But Bruno fancies himself as an explorer, and while exploring the surrounding woods he comes across a barbed wire fence, behind which sits a shaven-haired boy of his own age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon).
The adult viewer immediately understands that Shmuel is a Jew and that the barbed wire surrounds a death camp, but Bruno comprehends none of this. “Why do you wear pyjamas all day,” he asks? His father, (David Thewlils) obviously the camp’s commandant, tells Bruno that the place is a farm, and the boy is none the wiser even after he and Shmuel strike up a friendship across the wire.
Some have found Bruno’s ignorance of the true nature of the camp and his father’s role in it implausible. What are they thinking? He’s eight (he turns nine in the course of the story). Of course he loves his father. Of course he is innocent.
Bruno’s naive blindness, however, makes you think about what some people have called the wilful blindness of Germany’s adult population to the Final Solution. And this is an issue the film also tackles in the dawning realisation of Bruno’s mother (excellently played by Vera Farmiga) that her husband is a monster.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas takes the viewer from innocence to horror. The ending is genuinely harrowing. It’s also more honest, you could argue, than the conclusion of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Will Herman’s film get the same acclaim? I think it merits it.