Lowdown: A young German boy befriends a Jewish boy from the camp his Nazi father is running.
Holocaust films are common because their extreme setting allows for an extremely effective delivery of messages and emotions. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a case in point, a fictional film set under realistic Holocaust circumstances designed to make the most off ripping its viewers’ emotions apart.
We start with a boy living in World War 2’s Berlin, acting and behaving like a boy despite the war, soldiers and oppression around him. Then we learn the boy’s father (David Thewlis) is a big time Nazi officer and that he’s been promoted to a new position outside the city, a position that takes his family away with him.
We quickly realize the father’s new position is to do with running some sort of a slave labor camp, but as we learn more and more about said camp the boy remains oblivious. The adults either prefer not to talk about it or live in ignorance, but he sees it the way a typical boy would see it: some sort of an adventure ground; he can't even imagine what it really is. The fact he’s forbidden from exploring it only makes it more attractive.
After the boy finds his way undetected through his backyard and on to the camp’s electrified fence he meets a similar boy wearing a striped pyjama on the fence’s other side. Still oblivious to the things taking place in that big fenced playground "our" boy befriends the other boy. The pyjama attired boy, despite being a lowly Jew, becomes our German boy’s only friend since leaving Berlin. Problem is, we – who are not as naïve as the boy and who know what used to take place is such camps – know that this friendship has a hurdle or two to face.
This seemingly German film is English from start to finish, at least when it comes to the actors taking part in it and their accents. That feels strange! I’m used to Holocaust films depicting the Germans as people that sound threatening even when they speak words of love, but instead the baddies here sound like Harry Potter. Another interesting aspect of this Holocaust film is that it’s probably not that much of a Holocaust film at all: the emphasis is very much on the German side of things.
When pressed one could detect the film trying to say a thing or two about what took place with German society during the Hitler days through the analogy of the naïve boy losing his naivety the hard way. However, watching The Boy in the Striped Pyjama made me feel that rather than being pushed to think I was being pushed to feel. The entire affair feels like a mechanism to activate the more extreme feelings within the viewer as we’re quickly being jerked from feeling fear to feeling compassion. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas feels very contrived, tailor made to push us to the extreme; yet one has to give it credit: at the time conditions were as extreme as they could get.
The gas chamber scene is extremely effective as the film’s climax. The beauty of the scene, from a cinematic point of view, is that as far as actions are concerned nothing going on in the scene is particularly exciting; it's all made of simple shots. We only see a group of people forced to walk through the camp and enter its showers. It’s the screechy music that leads the way, providing the atmosphere, guiding our emotions and making them peak at the right moment.
Interestingly enough, in a very Schindler’s List like manner the camera does not dare stay in the showers once the poison gas is released. Can anyone recall a mainstream release that does stay inside?
Technical assessment: This DVD offers mediocre picture at best. The sound is alright, though.
Overall: Contrived yet effective at 3.5 out of 5 stars.