The Holocaust Presented as a Grim Children’s Fable, 14 November 2008
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
It’s official. The award now goes to the British for making the most depressing film I have ever seen. For the first time in my movie-going life I witnessed an audience member’s physical reaction to a film when a father was observed outside the screening room for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas collapsed against the wall with his child emotionally distraught and crying in his lap. With the rest of the audience, including myself, stunned into silence after the film and exiting the theater a communal internalized wreck, I don’t know if I was more devastated by what I had witnessed on screen or by that poor little child out in the hallway whose father for some reason thought this film would provide a history lesson his child could stomach at such a young age. As the film proves, the innocent are not cut out for war.
That being said, I would recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to anyone emotionally prepared to sit through it. The film’s climax will hit you like a sucker punch to the gut…but there is a lesson to be learned for those in the right frame of mind and mature enough to handle it. In adapting John Boyne’s novel, director Mark Herman envisions the Holocaust as a grim child’s fable, and in doing so, presents the historical events from a daringly simple new angle. Yes, Life is Beautiful attempted something similar not so long ago, but that film was told from the point of view of a child-like man trying to shield his son from horrors and had abrupt tonal shifts that sank its dramatic impact. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, however, keeps a powerfully consistent tone, and until the harrowing final act, is entirely told from the point-of-view of the young son of a German commandant assigned to run a concentration camp.
Herman directs the film fairly well, utilizing visual motifs and not so subtle foreshadowing (that left me with a sinking feeling in my gut as the film progressed), and he is aided greatly by the wonderful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. The script, though contrived in parts, is tight and moves at a brisk pace, and the normally sappy composer James Horner shows great restraint with his score that is both haunting and reverent to the events that unfold. The mostly British cast is stunning. As little Bruno, Asa Butterfield successfully permits us to relate to the child’s naïve innocence without ever allowing the character to become cloying or blissfully ignorant. David Thewlis commands attention as his tortured and misguided father, and Vera Farmiga is dynamite as his distressed mother. She gives a powerhouse performance and proves yet again to be a gripping chameleon of an actress nearing the level of a Cate Blanchett.
With its slim run-time, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems a sound choice for a future generation of teachers to show their high school students in lieu of an epic like Schindler’s List. It also makes a good visual companion piece to Eli Wiesel’s literary Night as it shows a fictionalized flip-side to the same tragedy. As the real survivor accounts sadly fade with the passing of time, the horrors of the Holocaust will remain firmly in place in the world’s historical fiction for centuries to come long after the last person who actually witnessed it has died. These stories will forever be screaming at us, and we would be wise to listen. Fault the film if you wish, but in its bold child-like simplicity it shows the insidious evil of the Nazis as two-fold. Yes, they slaughtered six-million innocent Jews, but it was an act of murder-suicide as in doing so they also sentenced themselves to death.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:
This film wasn’t good enough to be depressing. It was a bore for 4/5 of it’s running time, making the conclusion muted.
Try SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. The adage “What goes around, comes around” and “you reap what you sow” prevents anyone (outside of Holocaust junkies) from appreciting this. Wiesel’s NIGHT, which I once used with my eighth-grade creative writing-literature class is a fine work (as is Lowry’s NUMBER THE STARS and THE GIVER) but this is a hugely problematic film on a number of counts and will be forgotten soon enough.
Very nicely-written review though.
Sam, I find it interesting you thought the film a bore. I agree there were some flaws, but my gut reaction, and the audience’s reaction to the ending, overshadowed those flaws. We’ll see how it holds up over time. I didn’t mean to suggest it could compare to Night–nothing can, but it I think it could make a thought-provoking and interesting companion piece.
Even more interesting is your description of Synecdoche New York as depressing. I have not seen that film yet, but I often find Charlie Kaufman penned films incredibly depressing from a writer’s standpoint–though they are usually incredibly clever.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your opinions. –DHS
Yeah, I agree, good review, of what I consider to be a poor film, one I wouldn’t want to bother talking about ever again.
Nick, on your blog I believe you stated the film initially stimulated thought and conversation, and even though you may not ultimately like the film, it deserves some notice for at least eliciting such an initial reaction. –DHS
I haven’t seen this, but my wife picked up the book. She’s an 8th grade teacher and does both English and WWII era history, so she’s interested in it. I’ve heard about the uncompromising ending. Like I said, I haven’t seen it, but I wonder how it would stack up to “Requiem for a Dream,” which is what I consider the most depressing film I’ve ever seen (“Gone Baby Gone” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” are tied for 2nd).
Chris, wow, Gone Baby Gone was very depressing. I had forgotten about Requiem for Dream…I recall that being more sickening than depressing. –DHS
David, you are a scholar and a gentleman. The audience at the Cinema 1in Manhattan, where I saw this film at a 2/3 full Saturday night show was rather indifferent. But I admit you did get quite a reaction there on your end. I am an active bogger and writer, and will now add you to my blog roll, as you are a good sport and a perceptive talent.
Sam, thanks! I’ll be happy to return the gesture and add you to my blogroll. I saw the movie at the Lowes in Manhattan…so many different crowds in one city. It’s been fascinating to read all the reviews and varying opinions out there on the film…it certainly has been one to talk about. –DHS
For sure Dave, it did give us something to talk about, but we mostly came to the conclusion that the film was meant to be a parable, like the novel, but it wasn’t conveyed appropriately within the context of being a parable. It was too bland for me.
However, I applaud its fresh vision and perspective, and hope that more like you, hopefully younger generations in particular, find something in it to take away. In a world where we are flooded with many films about the Holocaust, children and young teenagers finally have a film that they can more or less relate to or find it easier to conceptualise the traumas of the Holocaust, and that is a great thing. I loved Vera Farmiga though, she was brilliant.
Nick, yes, Vera Farmiga is long over due for an Oscar nod.
With regards to what can be taken from this film, I feel the true stories of survival during the Holocaust, like The Pianist, provide far more meaningful lessons, but this film provided a lesson nonetheless that should be taught. –DHS
Thanks very much for all that David. I also did review it at my site last week, the review is up there.
Sam, I read your review. We seem to agree on almost all counts–the great cinematography, the excellent performances, the lack of subtlety in the direction and script–but I didn’t feel the flaws were as detrimental to the film’s impact as you did. Again, I think it came down to the differences in “reaction”. –DHS
Great review! Thanks!