The family drama “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” depicts the Holocaust through the simplistic eyes of a child: all the brutality, all the absurdity, crystallized by the innocence of an 8-year-old boy.
That lad is the son of a Nazi commandant, and he befriends a Jewish boy his age who is being held in the concentration camp his father oversees. Sounds mawkish, but the relationship between wide-eyed Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and sad-faced Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) is the most effective part of writer-director Mark Herman’s needlessly overpowering film, based on John Boyne’s novel.
It’s engaging for a while, though. Both boys are newcomers but the curious way they approach each other feels believable because their characters are so lonely, and the friendship that blossoms between them has an undeniable sweetness — even though they’re separated by an ever-present and imposing barbed-wire fence.
Bruno and his family move from Berlin to the countryside when his up-and-coming Nazi father (David Thewlis) gets a promotion. The boy is understandably sad to leave his friends behind, but at his new home, he knows absolutely no one and is crushed with boredom — that is, until he spies a faraway “farm” from his bedroom window.
Naturally, his mother (Vera Farmiga) and father try to squelch his inquisitiveness about this mysterious place — “Why do the farmers wear pajamas?” he asks in his tiny voice — but once he grows tired of playing checkers by himself, Bruno defies their orders and dashes out the back gate to investigate. That’s where meets Shmuel, passing the time by himself at the edge of the yard.
Chatting with this boy of a totally different background is exciting for Bruno because he doesn’t realize yet that Shmuel is, theoretically, supposed to be the enemy. He thinks Shmuel and everyone else on his side of the fence are playing some sort of game — that must be why each person wears a number. The propaganda lessons that have strongly influenced his older sister Gretel (the unpleasant Amber Beattie) haven’t had quite the same impact on him.
Thewlis is singularly driven and ambitious as Bruno’s stern father, but the placid Farmiga makes things vaguely interesting once she snaps and realizes that her husband may not be such a good guy after all. In the midst of their marital strife, Bruno sneaks out day after day, and he and Shmuel talk and play and confide in one another; each is the other’s only real friend.
You know you’re being manipulated but Herman, who also directed the small gem “Little Voice” from 1998, shows admirable restraint — until the very end, at least. The climactic conclusion is so preposterously coincidental, so over-the-top in its melodrama, it’s more likely to elicit incredulous frustration than sorrow.
It doesn’t help that the insistent score from James Horner, an Oscar winner for “Titanic,” overwhelms us with a sense of dread early and often. That’s unnecessary. This is a movie about the Holocaust, after all; clearly, something horrific is going to happen.