The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (released as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the United States; see spelling difference) is a 2008 British historical period drama based on the novel of the same name by Irish writer John Boyne. Directed by Mark Herman, produced by Miramax Films, and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, the film stars Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, and Rupert Friend. It was released on 12 September 2008.
The film is a Holocaust drama that explores the horror of a World War II Nazi extermination camp through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys; one the son of the camp's Nazi commandant, the other a Jewish inmate.
An 8-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) lives with his family in Berlin, in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. He learns that his father Ralf (David Thewlis) has been promoted, due to which their family, including Bruno's mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) and 12-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), relocate to the countryside. Bruno hates his new home as there is no one to play with and very little to explore. After commenting that he has spotted people working on what he thinks is a farm in the distance, he is also forbidden from playing in the back garden.
Bruno and Gretel get a tutor, Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), who pushes an agenda of antisemitism and nationalist propaganda. Gretel becomes increasingly fanatical in her support for the Third Reich, covering her bedroom wall with Nazi propaganda posters. Bruno is confused as the Jews he has seen, in particular the family's Jewish servant Pavel (David Hayman), do not resemble the caricatures in Liszt's teachings.
One day, Bruno disobeys his parents and sneaks off into the woods, eventually arriving at an electric barbed wire fence surrounding a camp. He befriends a boy his own age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who lives on the inside and asks for food. The pair's lack of knowledge on the true nature of the camp is revealed: Bruno thinks that the striped uniforms that Shmuel, Pavel, and the other prisoners wear are pyjamas and Shmuel believes his grandparents died from an illness during their journey to the camp. Bruno starts meeting Shmuel regularly, sneaking him food and playing board games with him. He eventually learns that Shmuel is a Jew and was brought to the camp with his father.
One day, Elsa discovers the reality of Ralf's assignment after Lieutenant Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend) lets slip that the black smoke coming from the camp's chimneys is due to the burning corpses of Jews. She confronts Ralf, disgusted and heartbroken. At dinner that night, Kotler admits that his father had left his family and moved to Switzerland. Upon hearing this, Ralf tells Kotler he should have informed the authorities of his father's disagreement with the current political regime as it was his duty. The embarrassed Kotler then uses Pavel's spilling of a wine glass as an excuse to beat the inmate to death to prove his support of the regime. The next morning the maid, Maria, is seen scrubbing the blood stains.
Later that day, Bruno sees Pavel's replacement: Shmuel. Bruno offers him some cake but when Kotler sees Shmuel chewing, he accuses him of stealing. Shmuel says Bruno offered the cake, but Bruno, fearful of Kotler, denies this. Believing Bruno, Kotler tells Shmuel that they will have a "little chat" later. Distraught, Bruno goes to apologize to Shmuel, but finds him gone. Everyday, Bruno returns to the same spot by the camp but does not see Shmuel. Eventually, Shmuel reappears behind the fence, sporting a black eye. Bruno apologizes and Shmuel forgives him, renewing the friendship.
After the funeral of Bruno's grandmother, who was killed in Berlin by an enemy bombing, Ralf decides that Bruno and Gretel are to stay with a relative while he "finishes his work" at the camp, accepting that it is no place for the children to live. Shmuel has problems of his own; his father has gone missing after those with whom he participated in a march did not return to the camp. Bruno decides to redeem himself by helping Shmuel find his father. The next day, Bruno, who is due to leave that afternoon, dons a striped prisoners' outfit and a cap to cover his unshaven hair, and digs under the fence to join Shmuel in the search. Bruno soon discovers the true nature of the camp after seeing the many sick and weak-looking Jews. While searching, the boys are taken on a march with other inmates by Sonderkommandos.
At the house, Gretel and Elsa discover Bruno's disappearance, and Elsa bursts into Ralf's meeting to alert him that Bruno is missing. Ralf and his men mount a search and find Bruno's discarded clothing outside the fence. They enter the camp, looking for him; Bruno, Shmuel and the other inmates are stopped inside a changing room and are told to remove their clothes for a "shower". They are packed into a gas chamber, where Bruno and Shmuel hold each other's hands. An SS soldier pours some Zyklon B pellets inside, and the prisoners start yelling and banging on the metal door. When Ralf realizes that a gassing is taking place, he cries out his son's name, and Elsa and Gretel fall to their knees in despair. The film ends by showing the closed door of the now-silent gas chamber, indicating that the prisoners, Shmuel, and Bruno, are dead.
- Vera Farmiga as Elsa (Mother)
- David Thewlis as Ralf (Father)
- Amber Beattie as Gretel
- Asa Butterfield as Bruno
- Rupert Friend as Kurt Kotler
- David Hayman as Pavel
- Jack Scanlon as Shmuel
- Sheila Hancock as Nathalie (Grandma)
- Richard Johnson as Matthias (Grandpa)
- Cara Horgan as Maria (Housekeeper)
- Jim Norton as Herr Liszt
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a 63% with a 6.2/10 average rating on Rotten Tomatoes. James Christopher, of The Times, referred to the film as "a hugely affecting film. Important, too." Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, however, gave a negative review because it "trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked [the Holocaust] for a tragedy about a Nazi family."
Some critics have criticized the premise of the book and subsequent film. Reviewing the original book, Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote: "Note to the reader: There were no 9-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz â" the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work." Rabbi Blech affirmed the opinion of a Holocaust survivor friend that the book is "not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation." Blech acknowledges the objection that a "fable" need not be factually accurate; he counters that the book trivializes the conditions in and around the death camps and perpetuates the "myth that those [...] not directly involved can claim innocence," and thus undermines its moral authority. Students who read it, he warns, may believe the camps "weren't that bad" if a boy could conduct a clandestine friendship with a Jewish captive of the same age, unaware of "the constant presence of death."
But, according to statistics from the Labour Assignment Office, Auschwitz-Birkenau contained 619 living male children from one month to 14 years old on 30 August 1944. On 14 January 1945, 773 male children were registered as living at the camp. "The oldest children were 16, and 52 were less than 8 years of age. Some children were employed as camp messengers and were treated as a kind of curiosity, while every day an enormous number of children of all ages were killed in the gas chambers."
Kathryn Hughes, whilst agreeing about the implausibility of the plot, argues that "Bruno's innocence comes to stand for the willful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses." American film critic, Roger Ebert, declared that the film is not attempting to be a forensic reconstruction of Germany during the war, but is "about a value system that survives like a virus."
- Official website
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at Box Office Mojo
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at the Internet Movie Database
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at Rotten Tomatoes
- Production notes