Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

For several years now I've resisted watching Mark Herman's film, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," having read a number of mixed reviews and thinking I knew what to expect. Once again, I was wrong.

Newly promoted Nazi officer, Ralf (David Thewlis), moves his young family (wife, Vera Farmiga, son Bruno, Asa Butterfield, and daughter Gretel, Amber Beattie) from their comfortable Berlin home to a large manor in the countryside near the concentration camp he is now commandant of. The family adjusts except for Bruno who suffers from ennui and loneliness.

In an act of defiance to not go out back, Bruno escapes the confines of the home and after wandering through the woods arrives at the electric fence of the came whereupon he meets, an eight year old Jewish boy, Schmeul (Jack Scanlon). Despite the barricade of the fence, the boys strike up a friendship though neither understands the positions they are in or why their lives are so dissimilar.

A tutor is brought in for Gretel and Bruno, but all they are taught is propaganda, and the history of The Fatherland retold through Nazi eyes and lies. Bruno can't comprehend any of it, but 12 year old Gretel (who has an eye for a teenage Nazi soldier assigned to her father) buys into all of it with a chilling, coldblooded fascination.

We witness what appears to be daily bucolic life in the country, punctuated by terrifying brutal inhumanity towards the Jews (who Bruno is repeatedly told are not really people).

Kept in the dark as to her husband's business, the Commandant's wife begins putting the pieces of the terrible puzzle into place, reacting in horror. It's clear she wants no part in any this and can barely face her husband whose atrocities she can only imagine. Farmiga performance here is remarkable and heartbreaking as she tries to remove her children from the madness.

From this point on the story hurtles with an inexorable deftness to its final, inevitable tragedy.

Herman gets great results from the cast, nowhere more so than from his two juvenile leads.

Like the storytelling itself, James Horner's score nudges us into the film with its gentle opening motif that expands, contracts, and floats before screeching into the films finale.

Lacking the sensationalism of many anti-war films (particularly WWII films) "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" packs as strong an emotional punch to the gut as any in recent memory.

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