Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.
Length: 93 minutes
Grade: B+BAA=B
Budget: $13 million
Box Office: $41 million (9 U.S., 27 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: Based on the novel by John Boyne.
Directed by: Mark Herman, who hasn’t made anything you’ve heard of, Written by:
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, and David Thewlis.

A young boy in Nazi Germany finds himself separated from Berlin and his friends in Berlin when his father, an SS officer, is transferred to a rural area for oversight of a concentration camp. The boy doesn’t understand the situation and secretly befriends a boy in the camp even as his harsh tutor tries to indoctrinate him to hate Jews.

Entertainment Value: B
This is not a happy movie, although it is an interesting movie. The acting is good, the plot is quite interesting, and it’s fascinating to watch how the characters change throughout the film. The sheer novelty of the approach to such a difficult topic is fascinating. We are simultaneously drawn along with the boy as he struggles to comprehend the situation but also horrified that anyone can be so persistently naïve about what’s really going on. Plus, the idea of an SS officer as parent is certainly a fascinating perspective to see taken up, although I felt as the movie progressed that they forced him a bit too much into the expectation that overseeing the holocaust would make him a tyrannical husband and father at home. This makes it easier to hate him, but we already hate him, don’t we? Does he need to become something of a monster at home in order to make us hate him? Also, I don’t understand why they used actors with British accents for German characters.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality NA
Aside from social drinking and smoking, the only issues in this movie are the difficult topic of a Nazi Germany concentration camp and some violence. The violence is not quite what you might expect, rather a boy being shown after receiving a harsh beating, a man being dragged out of a room to be beaten, and the implied deaths of people. This is a rare case where I think the PG-13 is correct not because of anything especially awful in the movie but because this is not a movie you should assume is okay for younger children. I just think they won’t understand it, and it might be quite an awful thing for them to understand it. It’s not that only teenagers should see it, but as a parent you must know whether your children are prepared to learn about the holocaust or not.

Significant Content: A
Racism depends fundamentally upon actively manipulating people’s worst natures through repeated programming and on not having very much exposure to ordinary members of the target group. All people are people. The naïve fail to see what is incomprehensible to them. Many people in Germany did not know what was going on in the camps for real or did not know for a very long time. Fascism hates frivolity. Friendship entails sacrifice. Anyone’s child is everyone’s child.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Artistically, it seemed pretty clear that the intent here was to symbolically represent the five or six kinds of Germans involved in the Nazi era, and as such, it’s quite well done. Also, as an artistic device, it’s clear that any exposure to real Jews immediately refutes the anti-Semitic propaganda being used to justify their extermination, and we see this juxtaposition being lived out in Bruno’s own life between his tutor and his friend at the camp. It also comes out as the adults try to explain to him what’s going on in terms that try to rationalize it but essentially fail.

Discussion Questions:
~Does this movie feel like an authentic exploration of the characters it starts with, or does it feel a bit like anti-Nazi propaganda? Consider, especially, the character of the father. Do you think it’s good or bad to have anti-Nazi propaganda films?
~How does the father's character change throughout the movie? How do you explain this?
~At the moment of Bruno’s awful cowardice, what is motivating him? How does his naivete about the situation cause you to feel more horror at his behavior than even he does? Can you think of any cases where you have lied or avoided taking responsibility for something like this?
~What do you make of the fictional movie of the concentration camps? Does this idea help you understand why many Germans didn’t realize what was actually going on? Does it make you blame them more for buying such a fantasy tale?
~If each of the German characters in this film are taken as symbols of a segment of the German population, whom do they represent?
~The ending is clearly meant to horrify us. Did it succeed with you? Why or why not? What lesson is the horror of it meant to impress upon you?
~Must racism always be taught? Does it require a lack of interaction with the despised? Why are people racists? Are they ever racists on the basis of bad experiences rather than pathology?
~The scene where Pavel fixes Bruno’s leg and then asks him what he wants to be when he grows up is poignant. Why? What is the movie trying to say here?
~What is the relationship between fascism and frivolity? Is fun a good defense against totalitarianism? How is too much emphasis on pragmatism and duty dangerous?
~Why does the mother become so angry? If you were her, would you want your children to admire their father?
~To what degree is innocence a good thing? Is it ever a dangerous thing?
Overall Grade: B
Like I said, although this is a good movie to watch and discuss, I felt like at least some of it was designed a bit deliberately with the ends in mind. In a sense, I wanted to grade it higher than I feel I really can.

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