Review: 'Striped Pajamas'

October 16, 2008
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The Heartland Film Festival kicks off tonight with the North American premiere (which I incorrectly stated was a World Premiere in my weekly e-mail) of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."

Landing a major studio premiere is a coup for Heartland and here's hoping that it opens the door for many more.

The film itself is a challenging one to write about. On the one hand, the Holocaust should not and cannot be forgotten--and films such as "The Pawnbroker," "Schindler's List" and the TV miniseries "Holocaust" have had significant cultural impact to that end.

Yet in part because of these and other groundbreaking films, concentration camp images have become disturbingly familiar. Which puts any new Holocaust-set film in a bind: Avoid the horrible reality and you risk trivialization. Get creative and you can get called out for glibness. Confront the reality in familiar ways and you risk distancing the audience.

The first two thirds of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" are its most effective because a fresh and compelling perspective is offered: The protagonist is an 8-year-old German boy whose father is relocated from Berlin to supervise a concentration camp. The boy's fascination with the “farmers” in the “striped pajamas” brings him, against his parents' wishes, into contact with a young prisoner of the camp.

Then something has to happen.

Was it James Horner's too-big score that, in the end, created too big a wedge between the subject and this viewer? Or was it the conflict over how to feel about the safety of one German boy against a background of the slaughter of millions? It did seem off-balance that at least three of the seven major German characters (child, mother and grandmother) were presented with some degree of humanistic sympathetic for the victims.

It’s probably too great a burden to put on a film, but I should have left this film shaken. And it’s difficult not to sound somewhat disappointed in a Holocaust film, however admirable, that is merely good.

In short, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is a solid film, extremely well acted, that builds but never transcends.

Find more IBJ Heartland Film festival reviews here. For a complete schedule of festival films and events, click here.
  • I too wanted to leave the film shaken and felt slightly guilty that I went home without giving the film much further thought. Am confident the filmmaker was not making the point that an innocent German boy was any greater loss than the Jews, but something was missing for this did not hook my heart the way I anticipated it might.
  • Thanks for the review, Lou (and the extra comments, Pearl.) I was really hoping that I could be at the premiere of this movie and meet the author, but I can't be five places at once. It's the story of my life, but having more arts events than I have time for is a good problem to have.

    Some day, if either of you have time to read the BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS book, I would be interested to hear your comments on that, too. It is a short, fast read. I'm sure I will see the movie some day.

    Sort of off-topic but sort of related because I'm speaking of wishing I could be two places at once... Lou, I love that you call Marni Lemons an icon in your Thursday A&E email of recommendations.

    She IS an icon! I first met her when we worked together on The House of Blue Leaves at the Phoenix years ago, before it became a professional (Equity) theatre. I was impressed with her comedic skills. Then I saw her in a musical and thought, Good heavens! And she can SING like that, too!

    'Wish I could be at the Tim Spradlin/Marni Lemons Give My Regards event tomorrow night.

    But Lou, if you write about it, that will be the next best thing to being there! (Are you taking requests?)

    Hope Baugh

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