Still fabulous: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

It’s not often that I do movie reviews in this blog, but since this is a special film it deserves a special mention. I was lucky enough to attend the world première of the film in Dublin last week, and as I’ve never been to one before it was quite an experience. Everyone was in their best togs but it was a bit disconcerting to see people with buckets of popcorn – it didn’t seem quite right somehow. But what a relief to see a film without twenty minutes of ads beforehand!

I suppose one of the issues when going to see a movie adaptation, particularly of a book that is very good, or perhaps challenging, is will they murder it? There is nothing sadder than an adaptation that some Holywood executive has decided to ‘improve’ because the ending didn’t quite fit with what their target demographic, or because there were really far too many characters and several of them could easily be merged. In cases like these it’s rare for the film to work for those who have loved the book. Fortunately, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does not fall into this category. Neither however, is the adaptation so wooden and turgidly faithful (unlike some I could mention) that it fails as a movie.

The film opens with extended shots of Bruno running through the streets of Berlin with his friends. This scene setting provides us with all the information we need to know about when and where this film is set. I had wondered how the movie would cope with a book that is almost entirely from the POV of a nine year old boy and yet still render the plot believable. If I had one criticism of the book it was that I felt Bruno was just that little bit too naïve. The film copes with this by loping a year off his age, stressing his interest in reading adventure stories about knights in shining armour and total lack of interest in current affairs. The scene where Jim Norton’s creepily jocular tutor insists Bruno throw away his adventure stories in favour of a proper book about current affairs adds a touch of humour, as does the later scene where Gretel asks is he hasn’t been listening to anything the tutor has said, and Bruno answers simply, ‘no.’

Bruno himself is played with wide-eyed naiveté by Asa Butterfield, a boy interpreting what he sees on his own terms. Jack Scanlon is also excellent as Schmuel, who can’t believe Bruno doesn’t understand what is happening – his sideways, disbelieving glances speak volumes. Full marks go to director Mark Herman for the performances he gets out of the children.

Vera Farmiga’s depiction of the mother slowly disintegrating under the reality of what her commitment to Nazism really means is superb, and I thought her clothes were fabby. Some things are acceptable when they are miles away and out of sight, but when they’re on your doorstep and your husband is responsible for them, then it’s different.

Once I had got over seeing David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, and saw instead the Nazi officer he was playing, I was faced with that common conundrum – how do we reconcile our view of people who in some circumstances seem perfectly decent human beings, with the monsters their other behaviour suggests they really are? At the start we see the adults as Bruno sees them – his father is a hero and a good man. It is only as the film progresses that the real situation begins to filter through, and even Bruno can’t ignore it. Gretel throws away her dolls and covers her bedroom with Hitler Youth posters; nice Lt Kotler changes completely when he talks to the Jewish house servant, and his later treatment of Schmuel is appalling.

Some reviewers have questioned the ending, as have others, but I do not see how we could have a faithful adaptation without it, and yes it is shocking. Isn’t that the point? At the same time while explicit about what happens, the film is not voyeuristic, nor yet that other danger with such films, exploitative.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews
Time Out
The Times
The Guardian

My original review of the book.


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