Review: ‘Striped Pajamas’

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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.

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