Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Grim bedtime story

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) • View trailer for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.08
Buy DVD: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas • Buy Blu-Ray: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [Blu-ray]

Innocence, inevitably, is the first casualty of war.

Children, their hungry and ever-inquisitive minds not yet shaped by hardened reality, experience events — even tragic events – far differently than adults. In Hope and Glory, director John Boorman's 1987 film memoir of his experiences during World War II, his childhood self and friends found great adventure in the rubble of homes bombed during the London blitz.
Having disobeyed strict orders to remain in his own enclosed yard, 8-year-old
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) makes his way through a woodsy area, crosses a stream
and is astonished to find Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age, on the far
side of a wicked fence. Try as he might, Bruno cannot fathom the purpose
behind this enclosed "farm," and his quest for answers becomes increasingly
horrifying, as this film moves to its final act.

All those years later, theater audiences briefly found such behavior heartless and horrifying, then realized they were missing the point: Such actions were not disrespectful, but instead represented the resilience of the youthful human soul ... indeed, the hope of future generations. Children — little sponges, all — are the vessels into which we pour our best virtues ... or our most heinous faults.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the child at the heart of director/scripter Mark Herman's eloquent and deeply moving adaptation of novelist John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, yet another intriguing take on the WWII Holocaust. The film is both memorably poignant and tremendously important, as it indicts human ugliness through the insight of the ultimate judge: a young boy's instinctive desire to believe the best of his father.

I recall mentioning, earlier this year in a review of The Counterfeiter, how fascinating it is, at this late date, that dramatists continue to find fresh insight — indeed, as-yet unexplored actual events — in a subject and time period that one would have thought exhausted decades ago. And now it's happening again: As 2008 draws to a close, we're getting not just one but two new sagas of Nazi horror: this fictitious parable by Boyne, and the fact-based Defiance, certain to show a far different side of star Daniel Craig, currently basking in the limelight as James Bond.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Great drama springs not from how we react during our workaday lives, but how we rise — or fall — to the challenge of a soul-numbing crisis. And although world events continue to provide fresh atrocities that one day will inspire their own body of drama — Darfur and Guantanamo Bay come to mind — precious little can match the Holocaust for its depiction of humanity at its most evil, on the one side, and resiliently courageous, on the other.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas begins in Berlin, in the deliberately vague early 1940s, as 8-year-old Bruno learns that his family will be moving to the countryside. The relocation is prompted by his father's military career; although sympathetic about the friends his son will leave behind, the man (David Thewlis) gently explains that a soldier must respond to the call of duty.

Bruno's equally dutiful mother (Vera Farmiga) seems complacently content with this; Bruno's 12-year-old sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), recognizing her role is to set a good example for her younger brother, smiles bravely.

We wonder, idly, precisely what sort of "soldier" Bruno's father is. We don't wonder very long.

The new countryside manor is ominously imposing and cheerless, as is its heavily walled perimeter; Bruno notes, more with curiosity than anything else, the presence of an armed guard at the gate. He also discovers that his upstairs bedroom window offers a view of a distant "farm," although the boy is puzzled by the farmers' rather curious attire.

All these establishing elements carry great significance to us viewers, of course, but we have the advantage of enlightened hindsight; the power of Herman's film is the lazy degree to which Bruno gradually absorbs and then begins to process so many troubling details.

The relocation has augmented the household inhabitants by two; Gretel, responding to the urges of awakening womanhood, is charmed by the handsome young Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend), whom Bruno finds oddly menacing. And then there's the family's new gardener and kitchen worker, a bent and all but broken man called Pavel (David Hayman) whose emaciated feet no longer fit the shoes he wears while painfully shuffling about the house.

Bruno sees that Pavel has the same oddly striped pajamas worn by those who toil at that distant "farm."

The boy has been ordered to remain within the home's grounds, an environment so completely sheltered that the children won't even attend school, but instead will be attended by a tutor. ("You mean school will come here?" Bruno asks, mystified by the entire concept.) The tutor turns out to be a stern propagandist, whose bile-fueled indoctrination is embraced by Gretel, much to her mother's dismay.

The film's first emotional jolt, although comparatively benign, is unexpectedly grim: While searching for his football, Bruno wanders into the basement and is confronted by his sister's just-discarded dolls, all staring back at him with blindly accusing eyes. They're no longer desired by a girl newly convinced of her Aryan supremacy.

For his part, a boy nurtured on adventure stories, and an explorer by nature, cannot be confined by mere walls. Bruno cleverly finds a way outside the grounds of his home, and makes his way toward that curious farm. He eventually reaches a wire fence, by chance learning that it's electrified before he kills himself trying to climb it.

He also spots a boy, just his size, on the other side of the fence.

Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), also 8 years old, doesn't talk much. Benoit Delhomme's camera frames the scene dispassionately, taking the occasional close-up that reveals the boy's thin frame, the dark circles around his eyes, the missing teeth, the air of bleak unhappiness that covers him like a shroud. Bruno sees some of this, but mostly is delighted to have found somebody his own age. He peppers this "new kid" with questions, demanding the details of the "game" that he assumes must revolve around the numbers on Shmuel's striped pajamas.

The narrative, all its components now in place, begins to grind inexorably toward ... something. We've no idea what, precisely, only that it'll be awful.

Butterfield is a marvelously expressive little actor, and Herman coaxes an impressive performance from the boy. Guileless curiosity gradually gives way to uncertainty and even anguish, as we watch the boy process what he sees and hears: sometimes insightfully perceiving the edges of an injustice beyond his comprehension, sometimes making a mistake so grotesque that we cannot help pitying him.

In a film laden with heartbreaking moments, perhaps none is worse than Bruno's elation, after glimpsing a portion of a grotesquely misleading propaganda film intended to deceive the world about the true nature of a concentration camp. Armed with two tennis rackets and now convinced that Shmuel's "farm" really must be a fun place, Bruno races back toward the fence, intending to share some of the fun times he just saw depicted in the film.

Scanlon, as well, conveys great emotional depth; like Butterfield, he imparts considerable subtlety more with gestures than with words. Here, too, is the great dichotomy of youth: unlike the adults also barricaded behind this fence, and despite his deprivation, Shmuel still is capable of flashes of joy. They simply don't last very long ... which also puzzles Bruno.

This story's horror emerges almost teasingly, at random moments, Herman dropping stray comments and bits of data as if he were piecing together a puzzle. It's telling, for example, that Bruno's mother and father never are named ... just as it's telling the first time we hear the latter referred to as Kommandant.

We similarly wince, more with resignation than surprise, when somebody firmly tells Bruno that "They're not people."

It's also instructive to watch Farmiga: at first wanting to be a supportive wife, but eventually succumbing to her own doubts and realizations ... and, finally, to the ghastly agony of clarity.

Boyne's story, although clearly constructed as an allegory, doesn't feel contrived too often; we might question whether a lone Jewish boy might be allowed to remain on his own, so close to the fence, and so far away from the rest of his work crew ... but that's small stuff. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas lacks the blatant artifice of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, a film that now seems clumsy and grotesque by comparison.

It could be argued that Boyne builds his drama in the service of an implacable object lesson — that the sins of the father will be revisited on the son — and that moral imperative certainly resonates, and seems appropriate, in this day and age.

My one strong complaint revolves around composer James Horner's needlessly bombastic score. Given the degree to which Herman — whose previous films include the equally engaging Brassed Off and Little Voice — appreciates and employs subtlety, this delicacy is too frequently shattered by Horner's blaring orchestral melodies.

And Horner's contribution is never more intrusive than during the story's climax, when the building tension is damn near overwhelmed by the ominous, swelling dirge.

We get it, we get it; we don't need to be hit over the head by the music, as well.

Fortunately, you'll likely not remember this, instead being transfixed by the irrepressible buoyancy of youth, and the uncomplicated, loving gesture of two boys who, despite everything that separates them, still can clasp hands as friends. No matter what.

Oh, and here's another book I obviously have to read...

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