Eight year old Bruno is upset to leave Berlin when his father gets an important new job in the country. Friendless and perplexed by his new environment, Bruno’s delighted to meet Shmuel, a boy in striped pyjamas who appears to live on the nearby farm. Separated by wire, the boys meet in secret. But Bruno’s oblivious to the dangers dawning around him.
Sunny innocence and palpable dread blend together to create a beguiling, serpentine experience. Unnerving and engrossing in equal measure, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas aptly captures the attractiveness and perversion of the Nazi regime. Seen through Bruno’s unknowing eyes, the perversions seem even more monstrous.
Hypnotically filmed, and with performances of real power, director Mark Sherman’s adaptation of John Boyne’s novella is as shattering as Schindler’s List without any of the violence. A sense of menace pervades – all the more palpable for being set in a family home where it’s the father who’s the monster.
But top marks must go to young Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Jack Scanlon (Shmuel) who sear the film with performances of tragic honesty. David Thewlis (as Bruno’s commandant father) is terrifically believable, countered by Vera Farmiga whose trust in her husband disintegrates as the family comes face to face with a terrible truth.
Rupert Friend almost exceeds Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in sinister malevolence. And here’s the power of Boyd’s story and Herman’s film: evil seen through innocent eyes is many-times magnified. Hard to know who’ll find the film most devastating – adults who know the history or kids who just follow the story. Either way, the inevitable ending will come as a big surprise.
Schindler’s List has found a more family friendly face and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is likely to prove more useful in schools than Spielberg’s tooth-and-claw movie. And Mr. Spielberg could certainly learn a thing or two from this film’s brevity and lack of sentimentality.
Be warned, though: while it may be small and perfectly formed, it delivers a knock-out punch.