The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) Review

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Bethen Blackabee of Films at Focal Point.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)
Director: Mark Herman
Screenwriter: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, Cara Horgan, Amber Beattie, David Thewlis, David Hayman, Jack Scanlon, Rupert Friend

It takes a truly incredible film to make an audience physically and emotionally react without intention, something that Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does with ease. This ingenious piece of work combines a heart-warming narrative of friendship and childhood with a factual documentation of mass murder and politics, using a variety of canny visuals to create conflict both within the film and within ourselves. Based in World War II Germany, this 2008 release follows the story of a young boy, Bruno, after he and his family relocate as a result of his father’s promotion. Bruno is aware of his father’s work as a soldier, but his innocence shields him from the horrific reality of his father’s role within the Nazi party. Whilst exploring the surrounding areas of his new home, Bruno meets Shmuel, a boy who is trapped within the walls of a barbed wire fence. Though Shmuel understands most of his and his family’s situation, Bruno has no knowledge of the true nature of the farm he sees before him; the basis of a challenging friendship.

What makes this film stand out is the way in which it approaches each narrative beat from a child’s perspective. Bruno’s positioning at the forefront of most scenes means that he dictates the tone, his innocence a key factor regarding how the situation is represented and how we are led to view it. Several impactful moments of background action (relating to Jewish discrimination and genocide) coincide with shots of Bruno’s everyday life as a child, where he appears oblivious to the terrifying realities surrounding him. Fiction films often mask factual events as stories through the association of cinema and narrative by the audience, suggesting that some action is added for cinematic impact, but while Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship is not based on a true story, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas continuously references historical context to remind each of us of the horrifying reality of what we are seeing elsewhere in the frame. Some spectators believe that the entirety of the film is based on truth, expressing the true capabilities of Herman as a director and the talent of the cast.

There are several fantastic examples of cinematography relating to these moments, as well as the use of symbolic props and placement to increase the power of the image. A mountain of bare dolls, an empty concrete room, a barbed wire fence; these are all examples of how simple set design has led to some incredibly chilling visuals, encouraging the association of the image with history. Colour also plays a huge part here, juxtaposing the rich with the neutral to contrast the locations, people and situations. Darker colours suggest wealth, power and health, whereas bland colours (such as beige, brown and white) connote the opposite, comparing the two boys’ lives and the destiny of each group in a wider war-time context.

The contrast of (diegetic) noise and pronounced silence is a fantastic addition to the structure of the film, creating a devastating yet stunning final image. Pronounced silence has become a widely used technique in films with important messages, often paired with stunning cinematography to allow spectators to digest the action. When constructed effectively, just as Herman has done here, it can leave its audience shaken to the core, the message embedded deep inside the mind. With such an incredible final sequence, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has done exactly this. It will leave you speechless, and for once not wanting to know more.

The film’s persistence and focus upon character development builds up to this moment, each and every character given important personality details to provide a wider spread of identifiable individuals. This is further supported by some incredible acting, creating a seemingly accurate line of events that suggest a level of realness that few films successfully portray. Credit must go to Asa Butterfield (Bruno), Amber Beattie (Gretel) and Jack Scanlon (Shmuel) in particular, the child actors each exhibiting an incredible level of performance and empathy for such young talents. Each of their personalities are convincing and, despite holding some negative traits, invite empathy and a relatability to their view of the world. Vera Farmiga also provides a heart-breaking performance as Bruno’s mother, her slow deterioration of mental health and love for her husband delivered to perfection. The final sequence shows Farmiga and Beattie’s full potential as actresses, a heart-wrenching moment to watch as their emotions explode in a state of anger, fear and hurt. With the additional talents of the likes of David Thewlis, Rupert Friend and David Hayman each involved in prominent roles, the entire collection of performances within The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a hugely positive impact on the overall execution of the story, controlling the power of each and every moment, thus creating a deeper empathy and understanding regarding the topic at hand.

Overall, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a true credit to Herman’s filmography as a screenwriter-director. Such a hard-hitting and emotional narrative, presented to the realistic and powerful extent that Herman has achieved, deserves endless recognition. Though many films are memorable, this is one of the few that can be said to have left a mark on millions of individuals, as evidenced through the instant recognition that is expressed whenever it is mentioned in conversation. Like a small handful of cinema’s most impactful moments, this film has you fully engaged as a constant, receiving an obvious physical reaction through its continuous suspense and ever more impactful narrative beats. With a powerful and scarring ending that will be ingrained into the memories of all who see it, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a devastating piece of delicately handled and incredible cinema; a film that will likely become a deserved classic for future cinephiles.


Written by Bethen Blackabee

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