The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is proof that good intentions alone cannot save a movie. I’ve not read the book, so I can’t compare, but at the heart of the story is a problem: it wants to be uplifting despite the horrific reality of its setting.
And therein lies a problem: if you want to examine something through the innocence of a child’s eyes, pick a topic other than the Holocaust.
The plot follows 8-year-old Brüno as his family moves to a new house for his father’s work – as a high-ranking officer of the Nazis. The house is stationed near a concentration camp (implied in the film to be Auschwitz; I believe this is stated clearly in the book). Brüno’s innocent eyes don’t see the horror for what it is; he mistakes the camp for a farm, and the Jewish prisoners’ uniforms as pyjamas.
When he befriends a young Jewish boy inside the camp, we’re treated to episodes that I think were meant to be heart-warming: despite the adversity faced, these two boys are friends regardless. It’s also played for indirect tragedy in that we’re granted the hindsight of history, and know that this story will not end well. However, the focus is on the boys’ friendship and the challenges they face.
A significant subplot follows Brüno’s parents and the strain the war is putting on their marriage. Brüno’s mother grows increasingly distraught as information about the goings-on of the camp are made clearer, and she eventually comes to blows with his father over how he has misled his family into accompanying him there.
The film ends in tragedy, which I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s an ending born out of this story’s problem in tackling a subject like the Holocaust. It’s not possible to end a film like this happily and risk being offensive, but the ending it chooses is one designed to make us despair at the horrors of the past. Unfortunately, the way it does is this is contrived to the point of almost seeming silly. I imagine giving it the space to develop in a novel would make this seem less egregious; in the film it seems like a sudden end.
That said, this is not a bad film, just an ill-advised one. I assume the book has more space to deal with the story’s themes, and that condensing it into a movie may have weakened its plot. It’s well-acted (Vera Farmiga as Brüno’s mother is fantastic, and I wish the film had been about her instead) and it’s quite nicely shot, with good pacing and a nice score. I just can’t help but feel that in the end, this movie is a simplified way of saying “the Holocaust was bad” in a way that’s been done before, and better.
This is worth seeing if you want a heartfelt and well-intentioned movie, provided you can overlook its flaws and simplifications. Without having read it, I suspect the novel is the wiser choice.