The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a 2008 film based on the novel of the same name.
10 out of 10 stars. This is one of the most beautifully written films I’ve ever seen. I haven’t read the novel, but if it’s written as well as this it should win awards.
Bruno is an eleven year-old German boy whose father Ralf gets a job in Poland. So the whole family–Bruno, his older sister Gretel, his mother Elsa, and his father Ralf–move to Poland right next to a concentration camp. Ralf tells Bruno that the camp is a farm and one evening Bruno sneaks into his father’s work room and watches a Nazi propaganda film his father is showing. In this film, the camp is described as a vacation place with lodges, cafes, saunas, etc., the perfect place for a family to stay while the war is raging outside. This is Bruno’s exposure to the war at his age. He has no idea what’s really going on.
Since Ralf is the new commandant of the concentration camp, they are right next to it and there are no houses nearby, leaving Bruno with zero playmates. So eventually he sneaks into the forbidden backyard and approaches a young boy his age on the other side of the electrified barbed wire fence. This boy is almost toothless, sickly, has a shaved head, and is wearing what Bruno assumes are pajamas. Bruno is naive. He assumes that the fence is electrified to keep the farm animals inside and wolves outside. He thinks Shmuel is playing on the farm, not on a work detail hiding because his frail body can’t do the work of an adult male.
Over the course of a few weeks, Bruno repeatedly visits Shmuel at the fence and brings him food. Shmuel eats like he’s starving because he is. Schmuel tells him about his grandparents who came with him and his father and then disappeared one afternoon never to be seen again. His father tells him they must’ve died, and that haunts Shmuel.
Meanwhile, there is a dramatic change in Ralf’s behavior. His mother is ashamed of him and refuses to come visit. His father has swallowed the Nazi propaganda films he’s shown him hook, line, and sinker. And he has come to love violence, especially toward Jews. Elsa, on the other hand, is appalled as what’s going on is slowly revealed to her. The day she is told that the smoke coming from the factory is actually the ashes of Jews being burned she loses it and is never quite the same again. Ralf has become unapproachable and their daughter Gretel has fallen for a particularly violent soldier who lives with them, Kurt Kotler. Kurt openly beats their servant, an older man who was a Polish doctor, and when Elsa tries to intervene, Ralf stops her. Gretel has Nazi propaganda posters all over her bedroom walls. And Elsa sees her children being tainted by Nazi hatred until she eventually begs Ralf into letting her take the children with her to live elsewhere. He eventually relents.
Then one day Shmuel is in Bruno’s house cleaning small wine glasses because “they needed someone with small hands”. Bruno gives him some cookies and Kurt Kotler walks in and catches them. Shmuel tells Kotler he didn’t steal the cookies, that Bruno gave them to him and that they are friends. Bruno denies all of it and says Shmuel stole the cookies. So Kotler mercilessly beats Shmuel. For days Bruno doesn’t return to the fence and when he does, Shmuel is not there.
A week or so goes by with Bruno going to the fence every single day. Finally Shmuel shows up again black and blue. Bruno apologizes and slowly tries to win back Shmuel’s trust. Then one day Shmuel tells Bruno his father didn’t come back to the “hut” the previous day and he’s missing. So Bruno tells him he’ll help him look for him. The two come up with a plan and on the day that Elsa, Bruno, and Gretel are to move away, he sneaks into the back yard, goes to the fence with a shovel, and digs a hole under the fence big enough for him to crawl through. He crawls under the fence to Shmuel’s side and Shmuel has smuggled him an extra set of clothes so Bruno can walk around undetected.
This is the last part of the film and it’s very poignant. Bruno walks alongside Shmuel through the concentration camp and is stunned to realize it’s nothing at all like the propaganda films. But he’s not afraid yet because he truly doesn’t realize what’s going on. He asks to go to the cafe for a drink and Shmuel says “what cafe” because there’s no cafe. Shmuel takes him to the “hut” which proves to be a shack filled with about a hundred men crammed into a tiny space. Shmuel yells for his dad with no reply then the soldiers pull an alarm and force everyone in the hut outside for a forced march. They are marched to the showers and told to remove their clothes. Bruno, assuming it’s actually a shower, strips along with the other men. And the doors are locked behind them as the Nazis drop gas pellets into the ceiling.
Elsa discovers Bruno missing and calls Ralf. They all frantically search for Bruno and find the hole under the fence. As Elsa and Gretel wait by the fence, Ralf has his soldiers open the gate and rushes inside looking for Bruno. By the time he reaches the gas chamber and realizes Bruno is in there, it’s too late.
10 out of 10 stars. A beautiful film. The writing was perfect. The cast was perfect.