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Film Review - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Pajamas)

Updated on December 7, 2013

Film Review – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

I had no idea what The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was about as I sat down to watch it. This is my review of the film.

Starring Asa Butterfield as Bruno, the 8 year old son of a senior German Officer in Hitler’s Germany sometime around the 2nd World War, we saw the world through a child’s eyes.

Living as Bruno did in a large elegant house in Berlin, one that always seemed to be full of German soldiers doing his father’s bidding, and personal servants, he gets told one day that the family were moving to the country. He naturally didn’t want to go, seeing as he’d be leaving his friends behind.

The movie opened with Bruno and his friends running through soldier-filled streets playing at being aeroplanes with their arms outstretched.

In the new house, a big forbidding looking structure, we watch as his 12 year old sister, Gretel, seems to start developing into a young woman, chatting up the ever-present soldiers and throwing away her dolls.

The boy was bored. No school. No friends. From his bedroom window he had seen what he thought was a farm in the fields nearby. At this farm were a lot of people who wore what he thought were striped pyjamas. There were children there who he wanted to befriend.

Concentration Camp

His parents were horrified to hear that his bedroom had this view. The farm was of course a Nazi Concentration Camp full of Jewish prisoners, but Bruno never did understand this, as no-one thought to explain to him, with him being so young.

His bedroom window was duly boarded up.

The father brings in a private tutor for the children. The tutor taught nothing more than German history and the importance of the Third Reich and the war effort.

The boy’s mother queried this teaching, but was told by her husband that this was German policy throughout the country at the time, to keep the next generation patriotic.

The household has a servant called Pavel, played by actor David Hayman, who one day helps Bruno by patching up his knee after he fell off his swing. That day, Bruno learned that Pavel was a doctor. He couldn’t understand why a doctor would give up medicine to peel potatoes! However, he accepted that perhaps Pavel wasn’t a very good doctor as he had given up his practise, and Bruno though he meant he had been practicing! i.e. hadn’t yet learned how to be a doctor.

He did wonder why Pavel wore his striped pyjamas, clearly seen at his ankles under more normal clothes, through the day.

Bruno's Discovery

Bruno was only allowed into the gated/walled and soldier-guarded front garden of this big imposing house. He longed to go round the back but he was forbidden.

One day, he went round and found a shed window he could climb through and escape to a wonderful tree-lined country pathway alongside a river.

Along this way, he came upon the barbed wire fencing of the encampment, and there was a small boy his age just inside the fence.

They strike up a friendship, even though Bruno has no understanding of why the boy was there. He learns eventually that the boy called Shmuel, played by Jack Scanlon, was a Jew. Because of his home-schooling classes he realises that Jews are supposed to be a horrible race of people that he is supposed to hate.

He cannot understand then why it is he likes little Shmuel, who of course is just a normal little boy like himself.

He sees the chimneys on a nearby hillside bellowing black smoke some days, and asks his mother and father what it is they are burning, as it smells awful. He never gets a straight answer. But it is obvious that his mother really doesn’t know, although during the course of the film she learns the horrible truth.

When she does learn, she turns against her husband. It is clear she is a good-hearted, decent person.

The two little boys discuss it one day, one inside the barbed wire fencing, the other outside. Shmuel doesn’t know what it is either. He assumes it to be old clothes or something, seeing as how all their clothes had been taken off them at arrival in camp.

Bruno's Betrayal

One day, Bruno is surprised to find his friend Shmuel inside his house. He asks what he is doing there and the reply was to the effect that they wanted someone with small hands to polish all the crystal glassware, of which there was a huge pile on the table in front of Shmuel.

There was also a tray of fresh-baked cakes in the room, and Bruno offers Shmuel some. He knows Shmuel is always hungry and had been smuggling food to him.

A German Officer came into the room and screamed at the boys as he demanded to know who gave Shmuel permission to eat the cake.

Shmuel pointed at Bruno and said they were friends and that Bruno had offered them to him.

Frightened by the Officer’s manner, Bruno then denied this and said he had never seen Shmuel before!

The camera then watched Bruno make many trips to the concentration camp but Shmuel is never there. Then one day he was back, sporting a hugely swollen eye and battered face.

Bruno apologises from the bottom of his heart and promises never to tell a lie like that again. It is clear he knows he owes his friend a lot and is keen to do anything to make things up. Shmuel shook his hand and said not to worry, or words to that effect.

The Boys' Plot

Not long after this, Bruno learns that his father has decided to send his wife and children away. He seems to have finally realised that living next door to a concentration camp in the middle of nowhere is not the best place to bring up children.

Bruno of course doesn’t want to go.

He goes to tell Shmuel, and that day learns that Shmuel’s father has gone missing.

History tells us now exactly what happened to the boy’s father, but at the time, neither child understood.

Bruno offers to help Shmuel find his father, next day. The two wee boys hatch up a plan, where Bruno takes a spade and digs a hole under the perimeter fence, and enters the compound with Shmuel, to find Shmuel's father. In Bruno’s head, finding the father will redeem him in his friend’s eyes for lying to the guards about the giving of cakes the day Shmuel was cleaning glasses.

Shmuel agrees to smuggle out a ‘uniform’ to him, and a hat to hide the fact that his head wasn’t shaved.

The Horrifying Ending

Next day, as the family is almost finished packing up to leave, Bruno asks his mother permission to go out and play on his tyre swing in the garden. He has stolen a sandwich from the kitchen for his friend.

He goes out, runs round the back and grabs a spade from the shed and sets off along the river bank. Arriving at the prison camp, he quickly changes into the ‘pyjamas’ his friend brought him and quickly digs a hole in the soft earth, and wriggles through the space he has created.

He finds he has lost the sandwich.

The two boys enter the camp. After a bit, Bruno suggests they go to the cafe, which brings a surprised look from his friend, because of course there is no cafe.

For the first time, the camera pans the inside of the camp, where thin, starving men are lounging around, some lying down, too weak to move.

They enter a hut chock full of sick-looking men and walk down its length, calling for Shmuel’s father. Just then the opposite door bursts open, and guards quickly hustle the crowd of men out and through the mud. By this time the Heavens have opened and it is pouring with rain.

The two boys are dragged along in the middle of the surge of men. They couldn’t free themselves even if they tried. Just two little boys dragged along with the crowd and into this big imposing building. There are pegs and bench seating, just like outside a gymnasium. The boys sit down and reassure themselves they are only there until it stops raining.

Then the prisoners get told to strip for a shower, and everyone complies, the boys included.

They get put in this room with no windows and a heavy metal door, and the light goes out. You see the German soldiers on the roof wearing masks against the gas which they then send into a tiny aperture in the roof of this sealed building.

Meanwhile, back at the house, there is an increasingly frantic search for Bruno. His father’s important meeting gets interrupted, much to his annoyance, until he realises his son is missing. Then there is a frantic search of the grounds. The missing sandwich is found, next to the open shed window. Tracker dogs lead his parents and other soldiers to the prison fence where he left his clothes and dug the hole.

By the time his parents realise where he is, it is too late.

I know I have given the ending away, but what a shocking film! Right up to the end, you hope against hope that he will be found in time, but it was not to be. Bruno and Shmuel died together holding hands, or at least is is assumed they did and the camera does not return into the gas chamber.

I think perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this film.

Let the world never forget the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. So many good men, women and children died all because they were the ‘wrong’ religion.

The film was based on the book of the same name, written by John Boyne


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