At the risk of sounding stupid, while I knew that this was based on a book by John Boyne, not having read it meant I had initially thought that it would be one of those childhood based film on fantasy. And I guess so did many parents in bringing their little tykes in what they thought would be a weekend filler in between activities. Little did I and they know of course that it packed such a powerful emotional punch in not wanting to be just another movie set in WWII Germany and the Holocaust, showcasing the horror of that era seen through the eyes of a little boy who couldn't understand the gravity of the dire situation he's plunged into, making it all the more painful to bear witness to.
I was glad that director Mark Herman didn't dumb it down for the audience in masking the horror of the atrocities committed, as are the cover ups and the matter of fact manner in which the Nazis went about conducting their persecution of the Jews in concentration camps. Asa Butterfield stars as Bruno, an eight year old boy from whose eyes we witness the chain of events unfold. Having the family uprooted from Berlin to the countryside in order to follow the father (played by David Thewlis), an officer in Hitler's army, we soon realize the true nature of this assignment, and that's to oversee the activity of building horrendous gas chambers and managing a concentration camp that's just a stone's throw away from their family mansion.
To Bruno, being in a new environment means a severe lack of friends his age, and from his room he spies a farm where farmers mill around in their pyjamas. We see the world through the eyes of an impressionable, innocent boy who has yet to be exposed to the evil of the world, and this presents itself a number of avenues for the corruption of his mind, starting with the family home tutor indoctrinating Bruno and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) in lies against humanity. However, Bruno's sense for exploration and adventure sees him sneak out of his house and toward the "farm", where he finds a boy his age Shmeul (Jack Scanlon) across the other side of the fence whom he befriends.
This sets up some major conflict within Bruno especially when what he's being taught, told and observed within the household, being in direct conflict with his first hand experience with Scmuel, and becomes totally confused, though still afraid of speaking up for obvious reasons. This theme of standing up for what's right (or the lack thereof) and betrayal of the highest order has been explored in similar vein in films such as The Kite Runner and The Reader, but it doesn't mean that this film had its thunder well taken away from it. It still resonates thanks to the excellent portrayals by the kids in roles where their innocence has no place in their world gone mad, having rationale folks like the Mother (Vera Farmiga) shouted down and out.
James Horner gives this film a wonderful score, and became a character on its own highlighting the various dangers lurking beneath the seemingly happier notes. Such as a scene where a screening of what goes on inside the camps was made, but totally for propaganda purposes, in stark contrast to what we know would and had happened, but here fabricated for the mass public. To Bruno, it seemed like his dad is a national hero, though there's this sense of karmic retribution permeating and waiting on the wings to pounce. We also see how double standards can be applied within family, and a general culture of fear being bred no thanks to the Oath that each officer had to undertake.
Despite the dark content, the film is beautifully lensed, and I haven't read any qualm about the actors here all having to adopt an English accent (in contrast with the stark complaints with Valkyrie, which is much ado about nothing). The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an extremely moving piece and I had to admit I was quite affected by it, especially when the final reel came rolling. The last time I was this affected and moved by a "children's" movie was The Bridge to Terabithia. This film firmly joins it in that list of surprises, and a natural contender in my shortlist for the top movies of the year. Highly recommended!