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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - drama DVD / arthouse and international DVD review
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 5 stars
Actors: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Jack Scanlon, Rupert Friend, Amber Beattie
Director: Mark Herman   Studio: Miramax
DVD release: 10 March 2009   Runtime: 94 minutes (1 disc)
Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
DVD Features: Aspect ratio 1.85:1, Audio tracks (Dolby AC-3 Surround - English), Subtitles (English for the Hearing Impaired, Spanish), Friendship Beyond the Fence, Deleted scenes (w/ commentary by dir. Mark Herman), Audio commentary (dir. Mark Herman and author John Boyne)

Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the young adult novel by Irish author John Boyne, is the beautifully executed and emotionally excruciating chronicle of a boy's innocence unwinding in a time of looming moral darkness and the tragic consequences.

After an elegant party celebrating his soldier father's promotion, eight-year-old Bruno's family packs up their beautiful home in Berlin and moves out to a remote place in the country near his father's new posting. From his bedroom in their stark new house, Bruno (Asa Butterfield, whose preternaturally blue eyes make for some stunning extreme close-ups) can see people moving about on a fenced "farm" in the near distance. His parents, particularly his mother, are evasive about what happens there and who these adults and children dressed in "striped pajamas" are.

The boy is crushed with boredom, missing his playmates while his older sister's attentions are split between a handsome young lieutenant (Rupert Friend) under their father's command and a growing fervor for the blind nationalism that their new tutor espouses. Bruno's curiosity about the forbidden farm intensifies the longer he watches Pavel, the Jewish servant assigned to their kitchen and garden. Wrapping the boy's knee after a fall from the tire swing in the front yard, Pavel reveals that he is a doctor. An incredulous Bruno replies "No, you're not - you peel potatoes."

Bruno discovers a window in a back garden shed that opens onto the countryside behind their estate. When his mother takes a trip into the nearby town to run errands, Bruno makes his move. Freed from the confines of the house and front yard, Bruno races through the woods separating his family's estate from the farm with all the enthusiasm of an uncaged bird. When he reaches the fence, he spies a young boy sitting alone behind a pile of concrete rubble, while behind him men dressed likewise in the ubiquitous striped pajamas toil.

After repeated surreptitious visits to what Bruno continues to consider "the farm," he and Shmuel (played with huge-eyed, shaved-head pathos by Jack Scanlon) form an unlikely - and forbidden - friendship. Bruno brings occasional treats of sandwiches and cakes, even tries to entice Shmuel into playing with a soccer ball - roundly rejected by the young Jew and passed carefully back onto freedom's side through the electrified and barbed wire fence surrounding the compound. Each visit ends with the far-off whistles and shouts of guards rounding the men up to return to their quarters, Shmuel scurrying back to join them with his wheelbarrow.

The awareness of violence that Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) initially manages to keep at arm's-length becomes increasingly impossible to ignore, especially after the young lieutenant accidentally lets slip the true source of the smoke and stench coming from the work camp. Bruno's father (Harry Potter's lycanthropic professor David Thewlis), in a drunken display of passive aggression at a meal-time gathering, badgers the young man incessantly about his father having fled the country and avoiding serving in the military. When the ever-weakening Pavel accidentally spills some wine, the lieutenant hauls him off into the next room and delivers a savage off-camera beating while everyone at the table tries to maintain a futile pretense of normalcy.

One day, Bruno runs into Shmuel unexpectedly in his own house - he's been brought in because "they wanted someone with tiny hands" to wipe inside the stemware. Bruno offers his friend a cookie and Shmuel wolfs it down. Unfortunately, the lieutenant enters the room, sees crumbs around the boy's mouth, and accuses him of stealing food. Shmuel protests that Bruno gave it to him. Terrified of the lieutenant's reaction, Bruno denies it.

Appalled at his own weakness after the incident then chastened again the next time he visits Shmuel and sees the bruises and cuts inflicted as punishment, Bruno is eager, even desperate for his friend's forgiveness. When his father holds a screening for a new propaganda film touting the amenities and pleasures of life in the Nazi work camps, Bruno sneaks a peek. He is relieved and thrilled that his father has been working to make llife so much better for Shmuel and the others at the farm.

But Bruno's mother, broken and made mutinous by the horrified realization of her husband's work, demands that she and the children leave to live somewhere far from the truth. In a last-ditch attempt to prove his friendship to Shmuel before they're forever separated, he offers to sneak into the camp and help find Shmuel's now-missing father. He'll bring the shovel; all Shmuel needs to provide is a pair of striped pajamas, and a cap to cover Bruno's full head of hair.

The shocking, abrupt climax of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ranks in filmmaking anguish with David Fincher's Seven, although it replaces the explicit preceding violence of the latter with silent, sidelong glimpses at the horror. Both the author and director speak in the bonus materials of exposing the message of the book and the movie to students, but it is strongly recommended that parents view this alongside their children no younger than their teens. This is a powerful, scathing indictment of the human capability for broad platitudinal justification and willful ignorance of the details of the grossest offenses on even the largest of scales.

It's hard to watch, but The Boy in the Striped Pajamas should inarguably be seen. Again, as Herman and Boyne both note, it's vital that we never forget the Holocaust, lest we ourselves become culpable in its searing historical tragedy.
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reviewed by Sharon Schulz-Elsing
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