“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows – John Betjeman”
There are only a handful of people who will be unfamiliar with this heart-wrenching movie that portrays the horrors of Nazi Germany through a deceptively simple premise, that of a growing friendship between two young boys. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas goes on to capture the far-reaching and completely unexpected consequences of this innocent yet forbidden camaraderie. Set in a Nazi extermination camp, it outlines the nightmare that was Holocaust, through the eyes of Bruno, the son of the camp’s commander, and Shmuel, the titular hero, who is an inmate at the camp.
The role of Bruno is played by Asa Butterfield of the Hugo fame. The film begins with a party celebrating the promotion of Bruno’s father Ralf, played by David Thewlis (Lupin to all Harry Potter fans), to SS-Obersturmbannführer Commandant. We also meet his mother Elsa, played by the talented Vera Famiga, and elder sister Gretel. The family soon relocates to Poland, where the 8-year old Bruno has a hard time adjusting to his new surroundings. He has no friends and is barred from exploring the back garden, after he sees people working in what he assumes is a farm. He and Gretel get a tutor. While Gretel becomes obsessed with his antisemitic teachings, and the ideologies of Nazi Germany, Bruno in his innocence, only sees the Jews like those working in their kitchen as poor oppressed beings. He even tries to befriend one of them.
Then, one day, he secretly sneaks off beyond the back garden to the ‘farm’. He comes upon a barbed wire fence, around a camp and meets a boy his own age, Shmuel. The two strike up a friendship. Both boys are unaware of the true nature of the camp. Bruno thinks the striped uniforms worn by Shmuel are in fact pyjamas. Thereafter, Bruno regularly visits Shmuel, bringing food for the hungry boy and games for the two of them to play. Shmuel soon reveals he is a Jew, brought to the camp with his father.
The rest of the film follows how Elsa discovers the true nature of Ralf’s assignment, how the farm is actually a concentration camp and the black smoke and putrid smell in the air is due to the burning bodies of dead Jews. Shmuel gets beaten up in an incident due to Bruno’s fault. He soon forgives him and reveals that his father is missing. Ralf decides to send his children away from the camp. However on the morning of their departure, Bruno again sneaks off, this time entering the camp disguised as a Jew, in a bid to help Shmuel find his father. His absence is discovered and a search is mounted for him. What follows is the most unexpected and heart-breaking sequence of events, sure to leave you in tears. No, I will not spoil the suspense for you by revealing the ending, but it’s sure to rip out your heart and shatter it into a million pieces.
Holocaust is already a grippingly emotional subject, with the horrifying images of concentration camps and gas chambers sure to affect even the most hardened hearts. Add to that equation, two innocent boys completely unaware of the horrors of the world in which they live in, and voila, you have a sure-shot tearjerker on your hands. In just 94 minutes, Butterfield beautifully depicts Bruno’s journey from his naïve ignorance of the world around him to a gradual and horrifying dawning of the horrors of World War 2, with his budding yet forbidden friendship to Shmuel culminating into a devastating and cruel reality.
The movie’s powerful impact is not just due to its ending, although it does leave you speechless. Its impact is mainly due to the fact that the majority of the movie is seen from the point of view of the young Bruno. We share his child-like take on his world, his idol worship of his father, his bewilderment over the cruel treatment of the Jews. We partake in his rebellion, and ultimate befriending of Shmuel. We are right there with him as the rose-tinted blinders soon come off and he is faced with the stark reality of his surroundings. The movie’s power also lies in the juxtaposition of his naivete and aversion to the Nazi regime, against his sister’s fanatical obsession with the same. While Bruno questions the need to study history instead of comics, Gretel is seen as throwing away her dolls and instead embracing a study of the war, in at attempt at maturity. Bruno’s father Ralf, comes across as a hard, foreboding man who is unabashedly patriotic. He wants to mould his son in his image, never mind his tender age. His behavior towards Elsa changes after she discovers his true job and is against it. Elsa is seen as a kind woman, who though sympathetic to the plight of Jews in her house, chooses to ignore it. In all, the movie has beautiful characterization and strong performances by all the cast members. Even the role of Pavel, the Jewish servant, is portrayed so splendidly that the viewer is just overwhelmed with sympathy and pity for the poor man.
The most haunting aspect of the script is the seemingly innocent façade of a normal happy family going about its lives while hundreds of Jews are massacred right at their doorstep. The fact that the commandant of the extermination camp, the man responsible for coldly killing innocent Jews, is a regular family guy and not some untouchable dictator on a pedestal is what really brings home the horror. But the most touching theme of the film by far is the image of the little boy in his striped pyjamas , sitting by the barbed wire, his head shaved, eyes looking woefully empty, starving for food and company, yet unaware of why he was there. The impoverished, beaten up picture of Shmuel leaves an indelible mark on our minds. The pyjamas, ordinarily considered a symbol of innocence, security and comfort, cruelly become a metaphor for bloodshed and merciless killing. Also the contrast between the emaciated Shmuel and the well dressed and healthy Bruno is a depiction of an inherent fault in our society. And the ending is, well, the final blow. People not crying already by this point, will definitely feel the tears be jerked right out of them. So if you have not seen this classic already, then please do so at the earliest and be prepared to have your faith in the goodness of humanity shaken to its very core.