In creating a fable about the Holocaust this question rises: Is this a topic that really needs further simplification? Arguably, much of the fiction and film that has addressed the atrocities of the "final solution" has been reductive, dwelling on the absolute evil of the Nazis who perpetrated it or the absolute victimization of those who ended up in the gas chambers.
It's not that there haven't been moving, insightful and important works, it's that, for the majority, the Holocaust has become dramatic shorthand for what journalist Ron Rosenbaum calls "the depths of human nature." Similarly, Hitler has become a satanic cartoon that defies introspection or understanding. Society may be becoming morally relativistic, but one thing we agree on is that Hitler and the Holocaust embody mankind at its worst.
And so, with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it's hard to figure out just what the movie thinks it's offering beyond that simple conclusion.
Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the son of a Nazi commander (David Thewlis) assigned to run Auschwitz. Sheltered from the brutal realities of his father's position, lonely Bruno believes that their beautiful country manor sits beside a strange "farm." One day he sneaks out and encounters Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a scrawny boy on the other side of an electrified fence. Desperate for companionship, Bruno befriends the boy while trying to puzzle out what's going on around him. Shmuel, happy to connect with someone his own age, mostly wants something to eat.
Meanwhile, back at home, Bruno's mother (Vera Farminga) discovers the awful scope of what's going on at the camp and slowly descends into depression, while Bruno's older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) turns her schoolgirl crush for a handsome soldier into a full-blooded embrace of Nazi fascism.
Despite being based on a children's novel by John Boyne (who also scripted), it's unlikely that parents will drag their kids to this self-described fable. While the production values have the high gloss of Disney-fied Miramax — with swooping camera angles and an overbearing musical score by James Horner — little here is aimed at children. And so the question must be asked: Just who was this film made for?
Not nearly as misguided as Roberto Benigni's tastelessly trite Life is Beautiful, director Mark Herman's child's-eye depiction of the Holocaust is professionally rendered but awkwardly inauthentic and devoid of meaningful context. By focusing solely on the experience of children, the film deliberately sidesteps moral complexity and ends up asking only that we sympathize with the tragic fate of innocents caught in the brutal crosshairs of genocide. That's dramatic oversimplification.
The story is unabashedly constructed as parable with Bruno and Shmuel presented as allegorical archetypes. As a result, Herman takes great pains to hide the literal brutalities of the Holocaust. So affected is the film's reality, the cast speaks in elevated English accents, further distancing us from the story's historical underpinnings. This carefully scrubbed depiction undermines any real feelings we might develop for the boys. They are sympathetic not because we know them as individuals but simply because they are children. So, while the film's gut-wrenching final-act twist hits hard, it ultimately has nothing of import to say. The end result is to provoke an intense emotional response for no other purpose than the sentiment itself.
This last point is morally troubling and emblematic of much of Holocaust cinema's failure to confront its subject honestly. A million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis. Five million Jewish adults met the same fate. Is one fact more tragic than the other? By sentimentalizing and simplifying the Holocaust's emotional and moral complexity, films such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas turn one of history's greatest human atrocities into one big fable, treating us all like children who are incapable of deep consideration. Or worse, worthy of only a cheap plot device.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-211.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].