The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Review
Berlin. The early 1940s. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an eight-year-old boy whose father (David Thewlis) is a German army officer. Then one day he and his family – mother (Vera Farmiga0 and older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) – leave Berlin and go to live in a strange house called what sounds like “Out-With”. And who are those strange people in the distance?
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on John Boyne’s novel, is a film that relies heavily on its ending. If at all possible, you should watch this film knowing as little of that ending as possible – and the film may well be a devastatingly moving experience as a result. With a knowledge of how this film ends, you are better placed to spot the author and filmmaker’s manipulations. It’s a well-made, honourable film on an important subject but you can’t quite get away from a sense that dice have been loaded.
John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was published in 2006 and was nominated for several awards. It’s an unusual book in that most novels published for children and young adults feature protagonists a few years older than the intended readership, as the readers prefer to read “up”, aspiring to be older, than “down”, of an age they have left behind. Yet Bruno is nine and the book is not, as the back cover of my copy says, a book for nine-year-olds. Twelve upwards would be more like it. The book also sparked debates about the suitability of the Holocaust as subject matter for children’s literature, an argument that betrays an ignorance of the many difficult and disturbing subjects dealt with in young-adult (not “children’s”) fiction over the years.
The novel is also notable for its narrative strategy: though told in the third person almost all of the action is seen through Bruno’s eyes, including many events the reader will understand more clearly than he does. This is not an unreliable narrator – there’s no suggestion that we he and we see is not true – but is instead an impaired one. Compare with the narrator of another major YA novel of this decade, Mark Haddon’s The Strange Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. In that novel, Christopher’s first-person narration is “impaired” by his (unspecified) high-functioning autism, while Bruno’s viewpoint is impaired by his naïveté. It’s a strategy that’s easier to maintain in prose, with Bruno’s persistent mishearing of Auschwitz as “Out-With” (though that continues after he sees the word written down) and Führer as “Fury”. There’s no doubt that Bruno is naïve and none too bright, and no argument that naïve and not-bright children have existed throughout history – but you can’t avoid the feeling that if Bruno were more aware than he is, Boyne’s carefully constructed storyline would fall apart. (And that’s without some other historical inaccuracies that have been pointed out.)
What’s not in doubt is that Mark Herman’s film is a sincere one, very well made with Budapest standing in for Berlin and the Hungarian countryside an effective substitute for Poland. The adults give fine performances, but the film belongs to its two young stars, both eight at the time. Asa Butterfield strikes the right note of innocence and unawareness as Bruno, while Jack Scanlon has a hauntingly hurt quality as Shmuel. Benoit Delhomme’s camerawork and Martin Childs’s production design are both excellent.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is released on DVD by Miramax in a single-disc edition encoded for Region 1 only. (The final word of the title was spelled British-fashion as Pyjamas when I saw the film in the cinema, but the title card on this US version has it as the American spelling Pajamas.) The disc begins with an anti-smoking commercial, another one for Miramax's thirtieth anniversary and a trailer for Doubt. These can be fast-forwarded or skipped.
The DVD transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. You'd expect a first-rate trasnfer from a brand new film, and you get one, presumably downconverted from a high-definition digital master. Colours are solid and shadow detail is fine: no complaints at all.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, which mostly uses the surrounds for James Horner's score, and some occasional directional sounds. All the dialogue is in English, but subtitles are available in that language and Spanish.
The commentary is provided by Mark Herman and John Boyne, and it's an interesting listen with some pauses and dead stops along the way.
“Friendship Beyond the Fence” (20:29) is a fairly standard making-of piece, with interviews from the sets and locations in Hungary Many of the cast and crew had read the novel and their regard for it is clear.
This is followed by a series of deleted scenes, which can be played separately or together. The scenes are “Mustn't Go Near Them” (0:59), “Moving Out of Berlin” (1:29), “No One to Play With” (2:39), “Less Freedom” (0:43), “Sound from Above”(0:28). They have an optional commentary from Herman and Boyne, though this doesn't say much – most of these scenes were removed for reasons of pacing or storyline redundancy.
Sneak peeks are trailers for Lost: The Compete Fourth Season, Grey's Anatomy: The Complete Fourth Season. and the same Miramax and Doubt trailers mentioned earlier.