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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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In war, child discovers truth


Clocking in at only an hour and a half, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on a book by the same name, is a powerful film that deals with the Holocaust from a child’s naive perception of the world.

Set in Germany during World War II, the film focuses on 8-year-old Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield. The son of a high-ranking Nazi soldier, Bruno comes home one afternoon to find that his father has been promoted – and that his family is leaving Berlin for the countryside.

From his room in the new house, Bruno spies what he thinks is a farm, with strange-looking people that wear pajamas all day. His mother, played excellently by Vera Farmiga, is alarmed by Bruno’s discovery, and angry that their family should be so close to one of the camps. She forbids him from playing with any children on the farm and even from being in the back garden. But her rules don’t stop Bruno, and he befriends Pavel, a former doctor and one of the "farmers" that provides help in the kitchen.

Bored and left to his own devices, Bruno sneaks out a back window and finds the farm. He meets a boy named Shmuel, played by Jack Scanlon, and questions him about why he wears pajamas all day and why he has such an odd name. When Bruno finds out that Shmuel is Jewish, he leaves quickly, suddenly confused about meeting the kind of person his family has taught him to dislike. Eager for a playmate however, Bruno visits Shmuel on a regular basis and they soon become friends.

Still a child, Bruno is painfully unaware of what is going on around him and of what the camps represent. And, to a certain extent, so is his family. At the young age of 12, his sister exchanges her doll collection for Nazi youth propaganda posters and magazine cutouts of the regime. She begins to dress like the ideal Nazi youth and recites back the biased history she learns without question. Her immaturity is especially apparent during an angry outburst after losing a game of checkers to Bruno.

His mother also possesses a degree of naivete. A soldier’s crude joke about the horrible smell from the chimneys alerts her to what work her husband is in charge of. Horrified and shocked, she confronts her husband in a very emotional scene. She spends the rest of the movie in tears, angry and upset about her family’s role in the purpose of the camps.

Bruno notices these things but never quite seems to put it all together. He is still too young to know what is going on. His sister’s sudden change confuses him and his parents’ constant arguing scares him. Bruno begins to question the hero-status he has bestowed upon his father, and starts to wonder how Jews can be so horrible. But these thoughts never progress and his willingness to accept what he sees and is told causes the misunderstanding that leads to the movie’s tragic ending.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a brief and simple movie with one goal – to show how naivete can lead to misunderstandings that can be disastrous. Some suspension of disbelief is required, but only to understand Bruno’s view of the world. With his bright blue eyes and open expression, Bruno is the perfect innocent child. Like an empty box, his mind waits to be filled. If only he could have understood sooner could the ending have been different and tragedy averted. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, now playing exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre, is definitely a film to see and to ponder.


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