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Friday, Aug. 14, 2009
'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas'
Boys left to carry great load
By KAORI SHOJI
Forty years after the fall of the Third Reich, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann made "Shoah," a 9 1/2-hour documentary about the Holocaust. The film still endures today as the definitive film on Nazism and the death camps.
Lanzmann avoided all cheap shots and easy solutions; he stayed away from historical footage and concentrated on first-person testimonies from survivors and ex-Resistance fighters. Since then a sizable number of filmmakers have in their different ways, approached the atrocious monster of Nazism.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is the latest and U.K. director Mark Herman — working from a novel by John Boyne — puts two young boys in the front line of his project.
Herman, who wrote and directed such notables as "Little Voice" and "Purely Belter" has a way with children, or rather, with drawing out the actors' childhood selves no matter what their age.
In Herman's lens his characters come off as vulnerable but cheeky, endearing without being cute. The same could be said of the two protagonists here: 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) meets Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age, across an electrified barbed wire fence. Bruno is the son of a Nazi official in charge of overseeing a concentration camp and Schmuel is one of the prisoners.
Herman isn't exactly out of his depth here — he doesn't attempt to sanitize or cutify the story but he does (intentionally or not) hoist much of the responsibility of what the film undertakes onto the small, frail shoulders of the two boys.
The adults around them are ruthless or clueless — Bruno's father, Ralf (David Thewlis), a Berlin bureaucrat promoted to the post of death-camp overseer, has switched off whatever was once inside him that felt guilt or pity. When Bruno asks him who the gaunt, stooped people in striped pajamas are, and what they're doing outside the gray, evil-smelling building that stands just outside the family's relocated country home, Ralf pauses only a fraction of a second before replying that the people are "farmers" working on a "government farm" and he is there to help them. Bruno doesn't believe Ralf entirely but can't begin to comprehend the truth, either. By the end of the conversation he eventually agrees with his father that the pajama-ed people are "weird." Sighing, Ralf says in low tone: "Soon, one comes to realize those aren't real people."
There's nothing "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" has in common with "Shoah" apart from the subject matter, but there's a similar, adamant refusal in both to analyze or explain the enormity of what went on in the camps. Lanzmann repeatedly stressed that to ask why the Holocaust happened was "immoral and obscene" and in the film, the events unfold before Bruno's helpless (and unknowing) eyes before he can take in what's actually happening. The same goes for Schmuel — he can't fathom the reality of his surroundings, his and his father's shaved heads and the horrendous treatment they receive. Herman walks them through the story faithfully, but in the final 10 minutes he lets go of their hands so to speak, as the films sweeps them up and hurls them into a pit of darkness. Unlike Lanzmann who never allowed himself to flinch or waver, Herman can't seem to make up his mind whether to shield the boys or crush them under the weight of the film. In any case the horror and pain (all the more pronounced because Bruno and Schmuel understand so very little of it) seems renewed every five minutes.
Is ignorance bliss? During the first weeks of the boys' tentative friendship, their unknowing innocence certainly protects them: Bruno shares his meals and plays checkers with Schmuel, treating the barbed wire between them like an annoying inconvenience. Gradually however, the reality of the "farm" and the strange-smelling smoke rising everyday from the building's chimneys takes shape and contaminates their lives. Ignorance was not only blissful, it was the boys' sole escape hatch from a grossly incomprehensible truth. After such a film, the only reaction would be to mimic Lanzmann's, "To beat the head against the wall and wail and wail and wail."