Legend has it that Irish novelist John Boyne wrote “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” in a whirlwind of inspiration over two-and-a-half days. The movie version has the same hurried feel, but more so as hastily contrived melodrama meant to pile up box office sales, despite whatever feelings spawned the original.
The book, about a boy who lives near a German concentration camp during World War II, has gone on to become a worldwide bestseller for its depiction of a youth faced with the most horrible of atrocities. The film features many of the same key story elements, but lacks firm footing as it alternates between crowd-pleasing entertainment, a heart-tugger and, ultimately, a lesson about the evils of the Holocaust. Moments when it's actually about a boy are few.
The story opens midwar in Berlin from the point of view of the aggressors, where 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) learns from his mother (Vera Farmiga) that his family must pack up its beautiful mansion because of father's (David Thewlis) promotion and move to a rustic farmhouse in the country. Mourning the loss of friends and familiarity at the remote new home, Bruno, who fancies himself a budding explorer, is intrigued to spot from his bedroom window what he believes are farmers working far in the distance. These are curious farmers, however, and Bruno is soon asking his parents why they work behind a fence and wear striped pajamas. Many worried glances are cast about as everyone but Bruno knows the truth: Dad is in charge of a concentration camp.
While his older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), blossoms in the new place, Bruno is frustrated. Strange military men come and go, along with a tutor (Jim Norton) who frames his lessons in stark nationalist propaganda. But Bruno is confined to the house and front yard, even though he'd love nothing better than to poke around in the direction of the “farm.” Eventually overcome with curiosity, he sneaks off in the forbidden area behind the house and into the woods beyond.
Bruno is in search of the fantasy in his head, but what he finds is more like a fairy tale as he runs up against the electrified fence of the camp he saw in the distance. There he meets a boy his age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), hiding out by a pile of junk just inside the wire. It's funny because this is where the movie turns to junk, as the two boys get to know each other in a very far-fetched scenario.
Perhaps the scenes are handled more gracefully in the book, but in the film Bruno and Shmuel's occasional meetings frequently descend into unintentional comedy with Bruno trying to play and Shmuel inexplicably unable to explain why he can't. At one point, starving Shmuel pleads for a sandwich that Bruno misplaces (probably in his own stomach) along the way. Oops. All that's lacking is a laugh track.
From the movie's point of view the two are too young to fully comprehend what's going on. That's slightly believable for Bruno as he begins to eye his father and his father's work with suspicion. It's much more difficult to believe that Shmuel, who has already lost his grandparents and a few teeth, would feel as uncertain — or that he would have hours to idle by a fence far from the nearest guardhouse. Holocaust as a child's fantasy, a la “Life Is Beautiful,” is bad enough. It's worse to turn the children of the Holocaust into a fantasy for adults.
“Pajamas” also pads itself with some of the conventions of the genre, such as the dashingly blond German officer (Rupert Friend), who routinely dishes out cruelty to a saintly prisoner (David Hayman). More hints to Bruno that all is not well, but the frustrating thing about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is that its conclusions have little to do with Bruno or the boy in the pajamas. For the jacked-up, obvious and perverted conclusion, director Mark Herman conveniently constructs a literal storm as the family searches in vain for missing Bruno. Then the thunderclap arrives, a realization to make your fingernails curl: This movie is trying to make us feel sorry for Nazis! (PG-13) 93 min. HIIII S