When the son of a German commandant meets a young Jewish boy on the other side of the fence, they develop a friendship that can only lead to tragedy.
The Holocaust is one of the most sensitive subjects in recent world history. It is also a subject that can cause a lot of debate when having drinks with Mel Gibson. What novelist John Boyne said he wanted was to take this difficult topic and make it accessible to children. Mark Herman kept this in mind when adapting it to screen and did everything he could to make the Holocaust something kids could understand but made sure it was safe enough for them to watch. While he is successful in this endeavor, it means the movie leaves a little to be desired for adult audiences, although it might prove a solid tool for parents wanting to introduce their children to this moment in history.
The Holocaust has been used in the past as a cinematic device to showcase the effects the devestation has on children. Both Life is Beautiful and Au Revoir, les Enfants have done magnificent jobs at depicting this moment in time through the eyes of a child. Life is Beautiful is the most famous of the examples, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film while also receiving a nomination for Best Picture at the 1999 Academy Awards. However, it is the Louis Malle drama that contains the closer resemblance to this film, showcasing the friendship between two boys, sitting on each side of the political fence. In The Boy with the Striped Pajamas, it is an actual fence that separates the young men but it is still their friendship that drives the story.
The most interesting aspects of this film are seeing the story from a German family’s point of view. This film does not paint the German people as the villains in the movie. The government and official rule makers are the evil warmongers, but they remain in the background, always dangerous but mostly faceless. Instead, we are introduced to a family who is sent by the military to a very controversial location and we watch as the family begins to fracture thanks to the evils that rest just over the hill from their new home.
The father is a military man who is convinced he is fighting to make the world a better place. His wife is the dedicated woman who stands by her husband and believes, although faltering at time, that their cause is right. The contrast of beliefs comes between their children, Gretel and Bruno. Gretel starts the movie as a young girl who enjoys playing with dolls but, thanks to an aggressive Nazi tutor and her infatuation with a young soldier (Rupert Friend), she becomes infatuated with the party line. Bruno, on the other hand, is just a young boy who likes to spend time with his friends and play. When he inadvertently meets a young boy wearing striped pajamas who lives behind an electrified fence on the other side of the hill, he starts to doubt that the Jewish people are as bad as he has been warned.
The difficulties with a movie like this are we are asked to suspend belief throughout most of the movie. We are asked to believe that Bruno is as wide eyed and innocent as the story suggests. The young actor playing the role does a good job in showing the amazed bewilderment of the boy he befriends, always sitting in the field in his pajamas. He also has moments of doubt when he gets to know the servant who brings them food and helps him when he is hurt, a man who claims to have once been a doctor but now walks slowly around the grounds in his pajamas as well.
It is not hard to discern that the young boy in the pajamas is in a concentration camp and when a young soldier mentions that it smells really bad when they burn the prisoners, you realize that this is a very bad place. The disbelief must continue here because the mother only slowly realizes that this is not a concentration camp but an extermination camp she has brought her children to live next to. It is not as hard to believe the father would hide this information from her on orders from his country. Why this film works lies on the shoulders of the actors playing these two pivotal roles. Vera Farmiga, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in last year’s Up in the Air, is spectacular as the distressed wife. David Thewlis plays the father with enough compassion and sincerity to make him also not appear as a villain.
There are a number of problems with the movie, including making all the Jewish people weak and/or kind and never painting the Nazi’s as anything more than just average people trying to make ends meet. There is a point where they attempt to villainize one of the Nazi soldiers but they make sure to do it in a way that shows stress pushing him over the edge. The other problem is that making this movie for kids means all the violence happens off screen. There are some major deaths but you only are given hints at those atrocities.
At the end of the film, a climax that threatens to tear your heart from your chest, we are left with a solid family drama. It is a tool to teach the youngsters about the dangers of racism and to show them this horrible period of history from a point of view they can understand. It is a nice tool to allow parents to answer a kid’s question about the Holocaust but isn’t strong enough to push the more discerning viewers. It is a good movie, but not a great one.
Friendship Beyond the Fence (20:27) is a making of feature that talks to everyone involved but remains a light work, detailing the process from script to filming. The cast and crew talk about how hard it was to make a film about this subject matter but the feature, as with the film itself, is not very deep in understanding the complexities of the story.
There are also five deleted scenes with optional commentary by the director and book’s author. The deletions were needed for various reasons. One scene was deleted because the director understood that Bruno was naive and felt its inclusion made that fact even worse. Another scene was deleted because it gave away the surprise of what the trip to the country was really for.
Finally, there is a commentary track with director Mark Herman and novelist John Boyne. While this seems like a great idea as the two men might compare the novel to film comparisons, these ideas are slight. The two men occasionally mention that something is different or that someone fits a role perfectly, but there is no major discrepancies mentioned between the two men. The two men are both soft spoken and that makes it difficult to listen to the entire track. It is mostly scene specific with little in the way of history. It is a slight disappointment.