Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, 2008)

Absolutely nothing differentiates Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas from any other conventional Holocaust film except for the fact that Herman's film, especially because its protagonists are innocent children caught in the middle of man-made tragedies, reeks of emotional blackmail. While Herman manages to keep the film's affairs told from a comfortable distance, more like a dark fable rather than a historical anecdote (which it is not, since the film is adapted from a novel by John Boyne, and the novel's very premise, about a Jewish kid living and working inside one of Nazi's concentration camps, is a near-impossibility since Jewish children never lasted in concentration camps as they are immediately killed by the Nazis), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does not graduate from merely reiterating the blatant absurdity of the Holocaust, only this time, without an ounce of subtlety.

That is precisely the biggest problem I have with Herman's Holocaust film. Other than depicting those turbulent times from perspective of an innocent kid (looking back though, Roberto Benigni's syrupy Life is Beautiful (1997), with its annoyingly clueless father Benigni wrote and portrayed, is the top offender in utilizing both innate and manufactured naivete to questionable acclaim from the Academy), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas hardly has anything new to contribute to the largely stagnant genre. To make matters worse, Herman handles the material with such unnecessary reverence, gathered from the overly tasteful cinematography and its ceremonial plotting, that it becomes unbelievably off-putting and quite ironically, rather tasteless, quite similar to being lectured on elementary morality with the intricate yet infuriating flourish of an overly eager kindergarten teacher.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield, pale and wide-eyed, like a wet hatchling), the film's juvenile protagonist who was plucked from the city with his older sister (Amber Beattie) and mother (Vera Farmiga) by his father (David Thewlis) who is a high ranking Nazi officer newly assigned to the countryside, becomes the audience's eyes and ears in the film. We follow Bruno when he, out of curiosity and boredom, sneaks from his new home to the nearby concentration camp, which he mistakes for a farm, where he befriends Shmuel (Jack Scanlon, whose exaggeratedly pitiful exterior elicits the same predatorial feel from an overly eager mendicant), a Jewish kid from inside the camp. Unfortunately, Bruno is such a feebly conceived character, a character that lazily and conveniently utilizes childhood as an excuse for absolute gullability and dumb curiosity, that following the narrative through his perspective becomes such a difficult chore because his character stretches the bounds of plausible human psychology for the purpose of arriving at its much-awaited glory note.

The film's glory note, a climactic sequence that pits the sad fate of Bruno and Shmuel and the desperate scramblings of Bruno's family, is hardly glorious at all. When the pandemonium, the onscreen suffocation, the dullness and drabness of the reality that Bruno has realized takes over the initial glossy and stately trappings of the film, the shift is so incomprehensibly sudden and forecful that it borders on being ridiculous and laughable. I understand that the finale only emphasizes the grandiose absurdities of the Holocaust, yet Herman's operatic finale, oddly reminiscent of such cult Nazi treats like Tinto Brass' Salon Kitty (1976) or Don Edmonds Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) where shock substitutes for empathy, only backfires, especially in a way that it seems to be the only entertaining bit in the entire film.

The result I got then is rather confused: when Herman should have elicited empathy, or at least disbelief, shock, even anger, what I got, however, was a guilty moment of befuddled delight. If one needs a reminder of the atrocities of the Nazis without the pseudo-artistry and bluntness of a misguided craftsmen, Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) is what I recommend. It is only a third of the running time of Herman's overindulgent Holocaust film, but Resnais' meditative explorations of a real concentration camp is haunting and deep enough to leave a lasting dent in one's senses. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, being a tasteless redundancy, is just a waste of time.

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