Not since The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) has there been as powerful a story told of the Holocaust from a child's perspective. The tragedy of that tale as this one is the loss of innocent life. Less we forget, children were killed in the Holocaust. It may not be something we want to see, but it is the truth.
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters in the story don't, and there's a dramatic irony that runs through this film that is at times humorous and most others horrible yet ultimately heartbreaking. This is evident almost from the first scene, which has little German boys running through the streets of Berlin with their arms outstretched pretending to fly, while above them Nazi flags don't pretend but proudly do so.
One of those boys is Bruno, an adorable 8-year-old with black hair and big, beautiful, blue eyes, played by young British actor Asa Butterfield. Bruno returns home to learn his father is supplanting him, his sister and mother from their lavish home in Berlin to some dreary and desolate, office-like building far off in Germany's countryside.
From his new bedroom, Bruno can see what looks like a farm. His mother, played by Vera Farmiga (The Departed and Joshua), tells him not to go over there. However, Bruno is an explorer and eventually sneaks to the farm. It's surrounded by a barbed and electrified fence. Within are men dressed in dirty, black-and-white, striped pajamas. Bruno talks to one of them, a fellow 8-year-old actually named Shmuel, played by Jack Scanlon.
Shmuel, like the older men, is filthy, starving and tired, as if he were an overworked slave. Bruno sees Shmuel wearing a number and assumes he's playing a game. Later, Bruno sees a man in striped pajamas in the house doing labor and being treated very badly by his father and other German soldiers.
Bruno asks questions about all this, but his father, played by British actor David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Seven Years in Tibet) evades. His sister Gretel, who's only slightly older, tries to explain but she's too preoccupied with winning the affections of a young, handsome soldier named Lieutenant Kotler, played by up-and-coming British actor Rupert Friend.
Eventually, Bruno's father brings in a teacher to indoctrinate Bruno in the teachings of Hitler and the Nazis, the highly anti-Semitic teachings. Bruno tries to understand but he can't. The reason why becomes apparent.
The father espouses that he is a soldier in a war and when your country gives you an order you follow it. If that order is to enslave an entire group of people, so that they can later be killed in a nationwide effort toward genocide, then that's what a soldier does.
Yet, a distinction is made. We all know that anti-Semitism is wrong, but if that's what someone is taught from a young age and a portrait is painted of a people and that's all you know, what else are you going to think?
If anything, this movie shows that kind of thinking can be resisted. When people don't reach out and try to get to know someone else, it only fosters that kind of thinking. Bruno does reach out. He talks to the boy and even the man in the striped pajama. He spends time with them. He get to know them.
Others don't. They don't even see the Jewish prisoners as humans. They're thought of as vermin needing to be extinguished. Therefore, the others don't share the same empathy and compassion that Bruno develops, which leads him to want to help them.
This film isn't as raw or harrowing as Fateless (2005), a Hungarian film featuring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale and Infamous) that chronicled a young boy's experience and ultimate survival in a Nazi concentration camp. This film is softer around the edges, but that only makes its ending that much more stinging.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for mature themes
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.