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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

September 26, 2008

I’ve always been a stay and watch the credits kinda filmgoer. Not in a “simply must see who the Best Boy and Key Grip were” way that I’m sure some people are, but just because sometimes you get a few nice surprises and I’m usually keen to see the soundtrack listings. This is fairly standard practice at your Arty picture palaces, but go and see a movie at one of the big cinema chains, and you’ll soon realise that most people couldn’t give a toss about such anal pursuits, and the moment The End is signalled they’re bounding three-steps-at-a-time down the stairs to try and get to the multi-storey before the masses turn out.

At the end of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas last night, something truly unique in my cinema going experience happened; not a soul moved in the packed theatre. No-one. A big crowd in a big non-Arthouse movie theatre, and they just sat there stunned and silent.

How did we get to that?

Some background, first.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an intense little boy growing up in the city. He has a wonderful house, loving parents, a devoted sister and great pals. When his dad is called away the surroundings he knows and trusts are taken from him and he moves to the country, suddenly thrown into an alien landscape where, after initial hesitancy, he decides that he should embrace the other-worldly and the strange and get on with some exploring.

So far, so Railway Children, but this is nazi Germany, Bruno is leaving Berlin for a house near a Jewish concentration camp (Auschwitz, although it is never explicitly labelled as such) where his father is set to be the Kommandant, and the alien landscape he wants to explore is peppered with viewpoints where he can glimpse ‘farmers’ wearing striped ‘pyjamas’ working hard despite being clearly very poorly. There’s also an overpowering stench that he doesn’t understand, and which his parents don’t wish to discuss. On one of his expeditions he finds a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sitting behind a barbed wire fence. They talk, and tentatively begin to form a relationship.

There are issues here, and plot holes and improbabilities that some critics have, astonishingly, decided to make a big noise about. Access to the incarcerated seems, not ‘easy’ exactly, but relatively unquestioned (Shmuel is allowed into Bruno’s house at one point to clean the glassware); plus, the fact that all children were executed at Auschwitz within hours of their arrival is never addressed…but bollocks to that, and a big fat razzer to anyone who thinks it’s an argument worth following. This, lest we grown-ups forget, is a parable; a brief, succinct story illustrating a moral lesson. Betjeman’s quote at the start should be enough: “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” So stick your arsey quibbles where they belong, because here we are deservedly being sat down and told something.

It’s also been suggested that The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a “disneyfication” of the Holocaust, genocide for Junior Schools if you like. Presumably by people who haven’t seen it. Well, no it’s not, but it is a gateway for discussion perhaps, for more mature kids or teenagers who might be able to relate to Bruno and the learning curve he climbs. For reference, it is a 12A cert in the UK, and so children younger than 12 may see it if accompanied by an adult, but anyone taking 12-and-unders along is crazy, and will be nursing those same kids through nightmares and anxieties for months to come.

There are some sequences in here that will haunt and harry you through your worst moments, and one instant of eye-widening terror – not the word-of-mouth ending, incidentally – that will just rock you back in your comfy seven quid seat. It is no comfort that the cast (David Thewlis and Rupert Friend as the main camp administrators are chilling, emotionally wrecked monsters) is uniformly note-perfect, and the screenplay is wonderfully pitched to inform and appall and terrify in equal measure.

This is that Dark Hour, a moment of very grim reasoning indeed, and to see a promising childhood of sounds and smells and sights run up against it and fall crushed beneath the shadow is truly horrible. An affecting and memorable movie, but not for the faint-hearted.

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