This review contains spoilers.
Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.
– John Betjeman
The most captivating aspect of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is its protagonist Bruno, a nine-year-old boy. The theme of childhood is integral to the story – in particular, the way children experience life with a freshness and innocence that adults are not capable of. As the quote above – which appears at the beginning of the film adaptation – suggests, children interpret the world by exploring it, as Bruno does. They understand their environment by listening, looking, smelling and tasting. Children haven’t yet learned how to twist the evidence they encounter to support pre-existing belief systems. They have not yet learned how to be ‘reasonable’ – how to reorganise reality to fit an already established idea (in the case of Nazi Germany, for example, the view of Jews as non-persons). As the novel’s author John Boyne points out, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is really a story about children, and the way children are able to draw attention to the potential for irrationality and cruelty in adults.
Irish author John Boyne started out with an image of two young boys looking at each other through a barbed wire fence. Boyne has no personal experience of the Holocaust, but had long been interested in the subject, and had done extensive research on the genocide carried out against the Jewish people by the Nazis during World War II. The idea of the two boys and the fence quickly became the story of Bruno and Shmuel, one child the son of an SS Commandant, the other a prisoner in the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz. Boyne began writing immediately, imagining the story from the perspective of Bruno (while the novel is written in the third person, it is contained to Bruno’s experiences). Since its publication in 2006, the novel has sold more than five million copies worldwide, and has been translated into forty-one languages. And while The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was written primarily for young readers, its characters and themes resonate strongly with adults as well.
Bruno is a young boy growing up in Berlin in the early 1940s. He lives with his father – a soldier in the German army – his mother, and his older sister Gretel (who Bruno describes as A Hopeless Case). Bruno comes home one day to discover – to his great disappointment – that his family will soon be leaving Berlin for the countryside. His father has been promoted, and ‘The Fury’ (as Bruno hears ‘The Fuhrer’) has a new job for him. Bruno’s new home – in a place he understands is called ‘Out-With’ – is a long way from Berlin, and is not very pleasant. Soldiers come and go all the time, and there are no other houses around. No other children, Bruno laments, to play with. That is until he looks through his bedroom window and notices a strange place in the distance. The place resembles a farm, with huts and fences but no animals, and a lot of people wearing striped pyjamas. An aspiring explorer, Bruno walks to the edge of the fence, where he meets a boy named Shmuel. Shmuel is the same age as Bruno, and even has the same birthday. But his head has been shaved, he is much skinnier than Bruno, and he seems to be hungry all the time. Bruno is delighted to have found somebody his own age to talk to. He visits Shmuel as often as he can, sometimes smuggling him food from the kitchen. He cannot understand what Shmuel is doing behind the fence, however, or why he doesn’t like soldiers. Bruno’s father, after all, is a soldier, and he must be a good man. The more time Bruno spends at ‘Out-With’ the more confused he becomes, and the stronger his sense of uneasiness grows. One of the servants at the house – a man called Pavel who had been very kind to Bruno – is abused by Lieutenant Kotler, and then disappears. Bruno’s parents seem to be arguing all the time, and his sister becomes increasingly interested in history and politics (and Lieutenant Kotler). Bruno does his best to understand the new world he has found himself in, and is determined to be a good friend to Shmuel. He agrees to help Shmuel find his father, who has disappeared somewhere in the camp. It is not until Bruno slips under the fence that he really begins to understand the horrible reality of the other side.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was adapted for film in 2008, directed by Mark Herman. The film follows the novel closely, although it strays outside of Bruno’s perspective at times. The character of Bruno’s mother (played by Vera Farmiga) is explored more in the film than in the book. In the film, her realisation of what is going on in the camp in a way parallels Bruno’s own discovery. The film shows Bruno’s mother confronting his father (played by David Thewlis) after discovering that prisoners are being burned at Auschwitz. After this scene Bruno’s mother – a previously well dressed, strong and cheery woman – becomes sullen and depressed, angry with her husband and the situation he has forced his family into.
Bruno is played by Asa Butterfield, and his youthful curiosity and love of exploring lend the film a great sense of childishness. The lightness and likeability of Bruno’s character provide an unsettling contrast to the story’s darker subject matter. Shmuel is played by Jack Scanlon, and while he effectively conveys the differences between Shmuel and Bruno, he also highlights (perhaps more importantly) their similarities. It is easy to imagine the two boys, in another life, as friends playing football together.
The film also effectively makes use of its visual elements. In the novel, much of the story’s horror is suggested rather than spelled out; left to the reader’s imagination. Pavel, for example, is attacked by Lieutenant Kotler, and while no details of the abuse are explicitly stated the reactions of the other characters give the reader a sense of something awful having happened. Similarly, Shmuel disappears for a few days and returns with a black eye. He never explains what happened to him, and Bruno doesn’t attempt to find out. It is clear, however, that Shmuel did not fall of his bicycle, as Bruno guesses. The film, on the other hand, is able to hint at the realities of Bruno’s world without using words. On more than one occasion in the film the audience sees smoke from the camp curling up into the sky. When Bruno goes into the basement looking for a ball he stumbles upon his sister Gretel’s (Amber Beattie) dolls, naked and piled on top of each other. Their resemblance to human bodies is frightening, and serves as a stark reminder of the mass murders of the Holocaust. It is subtle visual elements like these creeping into Bruno’s experience that give the entire film a sinister undertone.
John Boyne’s novel is subtitled ‘a fable’. While it focuses specifically on the historical atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas stands for a much more general idea as well. Through Bruno’s eyes we are shown the worst of human nature – the violence and cowardice human beings are capable of, and that can lead to indescribable evils like the Holocaust. Like the genocide carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s; like the carnage in Bosnia, the mass murder in Rwanda. When Boyne wrote the final lines of the novel (“Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age”) he intended them to be read with a sense of disbelief. Because things like this do continue to happen all over the world, every day. And they will continue to happen as long as human beings are selfish, and as long as they twist the reality of the world to suit their own individual ends. Bruno’s story is there to remind us to be honest – to think of other people outside our own sphere, to see things as they are and respond truthfully to the experiences that we have. Only then will tragedies like the Holocaust truly be a thing of the past.
Criticisms of the novel usually centre on whether it is realistic or not. Critics point out, for example, that the fence would have been electrified, making it impossible for Bruno to crawl underneath. As a work of fiction, however, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not striving for historical accuracy. It is trying to tell a story, and – as a fable – to illustrate a theme. Whether or not the boys would have been able to meet seems beside the point. What is important (and what is shown in both the novel and the film) is that atrocities were committed against the Jewish people, and that the Holocaust was a tragedy that should never have happened. The novel is not intended to be an historical account of what occurred – but rather a plea that it never happen again.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust. The film runs for 94 minutes.
John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Black Swan, 2007.