(Miramax) David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Rupert Friend, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Richard Johnson, Sheila Hancock, Jim Norton, Henry Kingsmill, Amber Beattie, David Hayman. Directed by Mark Herman
Evil can be a difficult thing to pin down. We would all like to think we would know it if we saw it, but that isn’t always true. The most insidious evil takes place in the home, with the people we love. When our role models are knowing participants in evil, how can we have any sort of compass to navigate through the stormy waters of morality at all?
Bruno (Butterfield) is the eight-year-old son of a colonel (Thewlis) in the army as World War II is about to unfold. Unfortunately, he’s a colonel in the German army and a staunch Nazi. He has just been given command of a work camp – for which he uses the euphemism “farm” – which means the family must move to the countryside, which suits his mother (Farmiga) just fine. His sister Gretel (Beattie), like Bruno, is not thrilled about leaving their friends and home for someplace new, especially when it turns out to be a cold, fortress-like structure that masquerades as a cozy, comfortable home.
We find out that Bruno’s grandparents are split, diametrically opposed on the subject of his dad’s new post. Grandmother (Hancock) doesn’t approve at all – in fact, there is a great deal about the new Germany that she doesn’t approve of. On the flip side, Grandfather (Johnson) couldn’t be prouder of his son’s standing in the new regime.
Bruno is an extremely bright and curious young man. He wants to check out the farm, but his mother forbids it. When they move in, he discovers he can see the “farm” from his window and asks his parents why all the farmers are wearing striped pajamas. His parents expertly evade the question as only parents who’ve been asked a question they’re not ready to answer can be and the next day Bruno’s window is covered with boards.
An elderly “farmer” works in the house from time to time by the name of Pavel (Hayman). He is a gentle, quiet sort and Bruno more or less ignores him. When his father’s adjutant, Kotler (Friend) – whom his sister has a mighty crush on – discovers that Bruno is seeking a tire to make a swing out of, he orders Pavel to drop what he’s doing and help the son of the commandant. Later when Bruno falls off the swing and cuts himself, Pavel treats the wound explaining that he used to be a doctor but now he peels potatoes. Bruno is incredulous; either the man must be a terrible doctor or a terrible fool. Pavel doesn’t quite know how to explain it to Bruno and dares not tell him the truth. It really doesn’t matter very much; after a seemingly harmless indiscretion at the dinner table a few nights later, Kotler – who had just been called on the carpet by his superior officer – delivers a terrifying beating on the nearly defenseless Pavel.
All of this fuels Bruno’s intellect and curiosity all the more so he figures out a way to sneak out the back into the woods between his home and the farm. There, behind a fence of barbed wire, he meets a sad, scrawny little boy with the funny (at least Bruno finds it so) name of Shmuel (Scanlon). Even though they are separated by barbed wire, the two young boys strike up a friendship. Bruno smuggles food to the starving little boy and in turn Shmuel plays checkers with him, relieving some of Bruno’s boredom.
Bruno is beginning to ask questions about the situation around him. A vitriolic Nazi tutor (Norton) is indoctrinating the two children in Anti-Semitic thinking which seems to be working with Gretel, who joins the Hitler Youth. Bruno is less persuaded; while Mr. Liszt his tutor and Kotler regard the Jews as less-than-human, his own experience reveals otherwise. Still, he is intimidated by the violent Kotler and when Shmuel, who has been brought into the commandant’s home to polish crystal glasses for a party is accused of stealing food (that Bruno had given him to eat), Bruno denies it leading to a vicious beating of the boy (which fortunately happens off-screen). Bruno feels awful about his own weakness but Shmuel, who shows up with a blackened eye, cuts and bruises on his face, forgives him.
As Bruno’s mother, who believed her husband presided over a work camp and not a death camp, discovers the nature of what’s happening on the “farm,” it leads to strain in the marriage and to her wish to leave her husband and to take the children with her. The commandant agrees this would be the wisest course of action and the children prepare to move again. Bruno, who once hated the idea of moving to this strange place, now is reluctant to leave his new friend but before he goes, decides to fulfill a promise to Shmuel which may have terrible consequences for his family.
Based on a young adult novel by John Boyne, the film sees the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime in general from the vantage point of a family that is at its heart not evil but through their participation in evil events becomes that way. While most of the film revolves around Bruno and is seen from his viewpoint, much of the movie belongs to the mother who undergoes a transformation of her own. She goes from being proud of her husband’s achievements and supportive of his new posting to becoming horrified by his role in something unconscionable. She stands up for what she believes, understanding that when you take part in something so absolutely evil, so thoroughly without redemption that a part of you dies.
Farmiga is as good as she’s ever been in her role and in many ways it’s the pivotal role in the movie, but I was impressed with Thewlis who was able to make the commandant of a concentration camp, directly responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands, sympathetic in many ways, a decent father and husband who loves his children who is unable to grasp the simple truth that those he was oppressing were no different than he.
The role of Bruno is a difficult one and it requires an extraordinary juvenile actor to pull it off. While I would stop short of calling Butterfield’s performance brilliant, it nonetheless is praiseworthy. You never for a moment believe that he is acting, a cardinal sin of most child actors.
The role of innocence in something so heinous makes for a marked contrast. While the movie has been critisized for trivializing the Holocaust at the expense of the problems of a Nazi family, I disagree with these criticisms. Part of understanding what happened in Nazi Germany at that time means we must learn to understand a family precisely like this one – a family of otherwise good people who become thoroughly twisted into dong evil. It makes you realize just how petty the transgressions of people we have excoriated – such as the Octomom and the Goesslins – are.
WHY RENT THIS: A very different viewpoint of the Holocaust, one which may be a good jumping-off point for discussions with children about it. Some very strong performances, particularly from Thewlis and Farmiga are supported by a solid job by Butterfield.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The final scene is very difficult to watch, although it is filmed magnificently. Some may have difficulties sympathizing with the Nazi father.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mature subject matter regarding the Holocaust. The movie’s final scene is wrenching and may be a little too much for more sensitive children, but there are some important talking points in the movie that make this good viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is never mentioned directly in either the movie or the book it is based on, the Concentration Camp referred to here is Auschwitz if the filmmakers are being historically accurate as it was the only camp which had four crematoria.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 8/10