Ten years ago Mark Herman’s film adaptation of John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was released in UK cinemas, bringing the brutal events of World War II to light via the perspective of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield). This–combined with the running themes of adventure, exploration, and friendship, all of which are typical of childhood and contribute to the depth of the film–creates a deeply emotional, unsettling and rather touching story.
The movie follows Bruno’s family as they are relocated due to his father’s (David Thewlis, best known for his role as Lupin in Harry Potter) promotion within the Nazi Party. This leads to Bruno encountering Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a prisoner in one of the camps, and a forbidden friendship ensues. As the extremity of Ralf’s, Bruno’s father, commitment to the Party becomes more apparent the audience witness the unravelling of the family and the consequent tragedy which follows.
For some, the innocence brought to the film via the portrayal of the Holocaust from the naive perspective of a child (such as when Bruno enquires about the people on the ‘farm’, not knowing the gravity of what he was seeing) is immensely poignant. It contrasts and therefore emphasises the tragedy and brutality of both the film and the real-life occurrences on which it is based. This juxtaposition is also strongly present in the setting itself. The concentration camp – overseen by Bruno’s father – is desolate and barren whereas it is surrounded by relatively bright woods, visually demonstrating the conflict between harsh reality and the guilelessness of childhood.
However, this did not carry such significance for all. Reviews from critics were quite widely varied. Whilst for some, seeing the war through the eyes of Bruno was greatly effective, for others, it was problematic in the sense that the audience receives an oversimplified view, not only of the events of the war but also of the political climate which bred this brutal treatment. This was also felt by some within the Jewish community.
Despite this, the general reception from the audience was positive. This success is largely attributed to the profound emotional effects on viewers – it’s hard for anyone not to become invested in Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship, or for their deeply tragic fate not to leave you feeling disconcerted at the very least. The emotions brought about by the film are probably one of the main reasons, as well as the historical roots and significance of the plot, that this story still resonates with people a decade after its release as well as several decades after WW2 itself – and are why it is likely it will continue to stand as a powerful reminder of the atrocities committed.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one of many works which document the events of the Holocaust and, whilst it’s unlikely it will ever reach the same status as films such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, it is certainly well known. It is also potentially one of the most accessible war films as it’s easier for slightly younger viewers to comprehend the story from Bruno’s perspective rather than that of an adult, even if some of the subtleties may pass them by.
A decade after release, critical reviews may still be mixed, and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea in terms of the genre it inhabits, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas continues to educate and enthral audiences. This is a story which will always have an impact and will continue to resonate emotionally with viewers over time. Regardless of opinions about the film itself, it is hard to deny that the narrative is of great importance, making it a difficult movie to forget, whether you enjoy it or not.
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