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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas DVD Review

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Pyjamas) movie poster The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2008 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Mark Herman / Writers: Mark Herman (screenplay); John Boyne (novel)

Cast: Vera Farmiga (Mother), David Thewlis (Father), Rupert Friend (Lieutenant Kurt Kotler), David Hayman (Pavel), Asa Butterfield (Bruno), Jack Scanlon (Shmuel), Amber Beattie (Greta), Sheila Hancock (Grandma), Richard Johnson (Grandpa), Cara Horgan (Maria), Jim Norton (Herr Liszt)

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Though Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was widely proclaimed the definitive Holocaust film account in 1993, cinema hasn't been deterred from tackling the subject in the years since. In fact, rarely does an end of the year pass without a new Holocaust drama opening to acclaim and award season buzz. Oscars have gone to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1998), Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002), and Austria's The Counterfeiters (2007). After five unfulfilled nominations, actress Kate Winslet finally won a gold statue last week for her work in The Reader. Each of those historical dramas was credited with providing a unique perspective on Nazi Germany's atrocities.
The same is true of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a new film from England which relives modern mankind's greatest tragedy through the eyes of an innocent 8-year-old boy.

Mark Herman's filming of John Boyne's 2006 novel centers on a family whose surname is not given. Although they speak with British accents, the family is German and the father (David Thewlis) is a high-ranking commandant in the nation's military. For his work, the clan relocates from Berlin to the countryside, where their tightly-guarded estate neighbors a Nazi concentration camp. While Dad is largely occupied with business matters, the rest of his secluded household adjusts to the change of pace.

Son Bruno (Asa Butterfield) has frustrations and questions. The former include stifling boredom and a private tutor who recommends he graduates from adventure novels to an interest in history and current events. More importantly, Bruno's curiosity is piqued by the sights of his bedroom window. He wonders, who are those farmers and why are they always wearing pajamas? Eventually, the boy does some exploring, traveling the modest distance to the edge of the family's property, where an electrically-charged fence separates him from the shaved, striped, numbered, gaunt workers and their dusty confines. One of the Jewish prisoners, whose group plight escapes the naïve lad, -- fellow 8-year-old boy Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) -- befriends Bruno across their divide. Food is shared, conversation is made, and makeshift checker games played.

While enjoying a wistful tire swing ride, eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) notices dark smoke coming from the "farm" (i.e. Nazi concentration camp) next door. Meet Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the eponymous boy in the "striped pajamas" who lives and works on the other side of the barbed fence.

Reflecting the nature of our protagonist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas doesn't spell out too much, opting for a simplistic, child's-eye-view of the epic terror occurring literally in Bruno's backyard. There is a benefit to that approach; disregarding the politics, impact, and specifics of the Holocaust allows us to put a very human face on the calamity. The pain and suffering is more heartfelt than sheer numbers or facts can convey.

At the same time, the movie oversimplifies. The tidiness of its central family portrayal troubles. Father is callous and stoic. Mother (The Departed's Vera Farmiga) moves from sharing her son's naïveté to suffering somewhat quietly upon enlightenment. Their 12-year-old daughter Gretel (Amber Beattie) is swiftly indoctrinated and thus places Hitler posters on her wall while developing religious hate. Father's parents (Richard Johnson, Sheila Hancock) are divided on the cause and their son's role in it. There is also a loose-lipped, quick-tempered young Nazi on hand (Rupert Friend, a doppelganger for Orlando Bloom) to represent other ideals.

Through it all, Bruno remains inquisitive, conflicted, and inexplicably capable of secretly making the minor trek to the fence, unnoticed by guards on either side, to chat it up with his Jewish pal. That fantastic conceit that fueled the Irish Boyne's best-selling book must be accepted and is understandably the key ingredient to the film's affecting voice.

Vera Farmiga adopts 1940s fashions and an English accent to portray the family matriarch Elsa, whose naïveté gives way to quiet suffering. Bruno sits in front of his father's desk. Apparently, it's Take Your Son to the Holocaust Week.

But even before we get to a final act whose knockout shock registers as unbelievable, the piece has the air of something overly slick and all too aware of its ingenuity. The friendship between Bruno and Shmuel feels genuine, thanks to the utterly convincing and expressive performances by the two young actors. Yet there's something about the film that brings them together that slightly reeks of shameless profiteering. An accessible, tactful, and touching consideration of the Holocaust, Boy nonetheless never shakes the feeling that the emotion it generates is indebted to historical monstrousness, glib fantasy, and unsatisfyingly simple archetypes.

Had the movie been better received, its shortcuts would have bothered me more. Boy turned a pleasant profit for its creators (Miramax, BBC Films, and Harry Potter producer David Heyman's company Heyday Films) with worldwide earnings of $35 million. But reviews were mixed and the fanciful premise didn't translate into any undeserved Academy Award nominations or victories. (Nor did any of the movie's plentiful 2008 holiday season Holocaust kin aside from the Weinsteins' aforementioned The Reader.)

Miramax and parent company Disney bring this PG-13-rated downer to DVD next week.

Buy The Boy in the Striped Pajamas DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: March 10, 2009
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover


The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Boy in the Striped Pajamas ("Pyjamas" in the film and book's native lands) merits no complaint. It's perfectly clean, sharp, and detailed throughout, despite an opening credits sequence that seems riddled with compression artifacts. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is quiet on the whole, but with the volume cranked up, it doesn't disappoint. It's no house-rocker until the climax in which the bass in James Horner's score flares enough to earn that title.

John Boyne, the author of the novel, is seen in the featurette and heard in the audio commentary. As the divided grandparents, Richard Johnson and Sheila Hancock have limited screentime. This moment at the going-away party is one that wound up on the cutting room floor.


The Region 1 DVD offers a pretty standard slate of documentary, deletions, and commentary.

Functional making-of "Friendship Beyond the Fence" (20:29) covers the attraction to the project, the adaptation process, shooting in Budapest, the visual style, the children's performances, the task of recreating a wartime propaganda film, and the powerful ending. Operating primarily with talking head footage, the piece is adequate but unextraordinary.

There isn't much to the five Deleted Scenes, which run 6 minutes and 15 seconds altogether. Short extensions and exchanges, they add to existing material and/or wander into heavy-handedness. They're joined by optional audio commentary from writer/director Mark Herman and author John Boyne that explains the cuts.

Herman and Boyne also team up for a feature audio commentary. Their discussion is very screen specific, as they share information and stories about shooting scenes and the decisions that led to them. That Boyne is on hand ensures there is plenty of talk about how the book and film compare and differ. They also address the somewhat condemned design of English accents in an uncommonly interesting stretch. To combat the increasing spells of dead air, the duo resorts to basic, fairly obvious readings of moments. For the most part, the track is low-key, understated, and forgettable.

The disc opens with the Bob Clendenin anti-tobacco spot, a Miramax promo, and a Doubt trailer. The menu's "Sneak Peeks" listing plays previews for "Lost": The Complete Fourth Season and "Grey's Anatomy": The Complete Fourth Season before repeating the other two movie ads.

After a brief slideshow intro, the main menu settles on a still image. All the other selection screens choose other publicity pictures while score plays.

In its initial pressing at least, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is housed in a cardboard slipcover with no distinctive features. The only insert is a booklet promoting Blu-ray.

Despite the electric fence keeping them apart, Bruno and Shmuel still find a way to play checkers together. Young Nazi Lieutenant Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend) maintains a temperamental presence around the family's new house.


There are plenty of things to appreciate about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,
which uses childhood innocence as a way to frame the atrocities of Holocaust death camps. But while that approach largely serves the film well, it also trivializes the enormous tragedy with broad strokes and heavy demands of suspended disbelief. Though it may not stand as an excellent way for children to learn this bleak chapter of history, as seemingly intended, older viewers still ought to see the movie. Miramax's DVD is adequate, but as this isn't a film that lends itself to frequent repeat viewings, a rental is advised.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy the Book by John Boyne

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Reviewed March 3, 2009.

Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2008 Miramax Films, BBC Films, Heyday Productions, and 2009 Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.