John Boyne’s almost unfilmable novel about a young German kid’s-eye view of the Holocaust gets a solid, ultimately powerful translation to the bigscreen in Brit helmer Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Though the story’s p.o.v. is fresh, with a darkly ironic flavor, the film looks to be a tricky commercial proposition, as it’s neither a pic for tykes nor a large-scale WWII crowdpleaser. Result is likely to enjoy modest returns among upscale auds and those unaffected by Holocaust-movie burnout.
Boyne’s 2006 novel, which deliberately gave no clue about its content on the dust jacket, depends to a large extent on a trick that’s impossible to replicate in a movie. Centered on Bruno, the young son of a concentration-camp commander, it’s written in a faux-naif style, and from a knowing third-person viewpoint rather than that of the kid himself.
The peppering of childish observations and nicknames (“Out-With” for Auschwitz, “the Fury” for the Fuehrer) further enhanced the book’s theme of a young boy being led by his family into a world he has no understanding of.
Herman’s script wisely doesn’t try to replicate the book’s tricks or its prose style. Instead, it cuts back much of the book’s dialogue — especially in the scenes where Bruno befriends a young Jewish inmate — in favor of building a child’s-eye view of the world. It’s also blessed by a marvelous performance by 11-year-old, London-born Asa Butterfield, in his first major role, who perfectly evokes the main character’s naivete without ever becoming cute.
Story opens during the early years of WWII in summertime Berlin (adequately repped by Budapest), as the family throws a party to celebrate the promotion of Bruno’s dad, Ralf (David Thewlis), to an unnamed job. Eight-year-old Bruno (Butterfield) doesn’t want to move “to the countryside,” even though he’s told it will only be “until the war is won.” But apart from his sulk, the atmosphere at the party is relaxed and happy, the only sour note coming from Grandma (Sheila Hancock), who’s critical of her son’s elevation within the Nazi Party.
Film maintains its vagueness about time and location as the family travels by train through some pretty countryside en route to their destination — a handsome, neo-Bauhaus home, surrounded by a wall, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Father’s “work” is never shown, only referred to obliquely, and the only shadows are cast by worried looks from Bruno’smother, Elsa (Vera Farmiga), and Bruno’s observation that the local “farmers” in the distance all seem to be wearing “pajamas.”
When pressed, Father tells Bruno his work is “for the good of the country” and he’s “trying to make the world a better place.” To keep Bruno and his elder sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), occupied, he arranges for a stern tutor, Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), to come by.
Opening half-hour has some of the best stuff in the movie, walking a precarious line between black irony and showing the war from a totally German viewpoint, without tipping over into gallows humor or parody. Main plot kicks in when Bruno steals out of the house and goes right up to a wire fence where he meets a boy his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who’s also wearing “pajamas.”
At this point, the film (like the book) has to reveal its hand. However, as the central conceit can only be maintained in a movie for a much more limited time, the script sensibly pares the novel’s over-descriptive dialogue between the two kids.
Use of an almost all-Brit cast — with Yank Farmiga falling into line with the accents — gives a comfy, almost “Masterpiece Theater” feel to the movie that’s initially unsettling, with thesps’ body language and delivery distinctly un-German. That apart, perfs are nicely calibrated; Thewlis is especially good as the businesslike father prone to angry outbursts, Farmiga largely gets by on troubled looks and glances, and Rupert Friend is chillingly cool as a handsome blond lieutenant whom Gretel falls for.
Production values are smooth at all levels, with James Horner’s score reserving its biggest punch for the horror-show finale.