DVD Review: Manipulative ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ Feels False

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HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 1.5/5.0
DVD Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – The plot of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” new to DVD and based on a best-selling novel by John Boyne, may have worked on the page but a number of awful decisions on the way to the screen have taken a story with inherent emotional strength and turned it into misguided, manipulative drama.

People who rent or buy “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” will probably cry, but does that make it a good film? Of course not. Filmmakers who are willing to use children in peril stories just to make you shed a tear aren’t doing anything put pulling at your heartstrings. To what end? If it doesn’t feel real, it’s just manipulation.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was released on DVD on March 10th, 2009.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was released on DVD on March 10th, 2009.
Photo credit: Miramax Home Video

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” feels misguided from minute one. The film is about Nazis during World War II, but it’s done with British accents. With so many great recent films about the Holocaust in the language they should be in (“Downfall,” “Fateless”), we’ve reached a point where David Thewliss playing a German soldier with a British accent feels weird.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was released on DVD on March 10th, 2009.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was released on DVD on March 10th, 2009.
Photo credit: Miramax Home Video

This could easily be seen as nitpicking but it plays into some of my negative feelings about the movie overall. “Striped Pajamas” is a supposedly heartbreaking tale about the experience of a German Nazi family during the Holocaust. I can’t help but shake the feeling that the reason they speak with British accents is to make them more relatable to English-speaking audiences, as if the only people we can mourn must look like us and speak our language. It’s disingenuous.

The title of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” refers to a child named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) in a concentration camp. The lead of the film is not Shmuel. He’s just the device. The lead is Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father is a Nazi officer (David Thewliss). They move to a house not far from Shmuel’s concentration camp during WWII.

Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) knows what her husband does but doesn’t know all the details and lives in a state of denial regarding the smoke coming from the chimneys on the horizon and how her daughter’s teacher is clearly promoting the final solution to the next generation. Bruno is not supposed to leave his estate, but he sneaks out and finds another kid to play with that he believes lives on a “farm”. It will, of course, end in tragedy.

I like Farmiga (“The Departed,” “Nothing But the Truth”) immensely and Butterfield strikes some believable notes in the lead role, but the script is the problem with “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. What’s the point here? That some Nazi families learned some hard lessons during WWII? That’s a tough sell dramatically and the team here just doesn’t close the deal. It feels like exploitation, not realism.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is presented in widescreen with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions and accompanied by a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. Bonus features include deleted scenes with optional commentary by writer/director Mark Herman and author John Boyne, “Friendship Beyond the Fence,” and a feature commentary by writer/director Mark Herman and author John Boyne.

‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ is released by Miramax Home Video and stars Asa Butterfield, Vera Farmiga, David Thewliss, Rupert Friend, and Jack Scanlon. It was written and directed by Mark Herman. It was released on March 10th, 2009. It is rated PG-13.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

John's picture

Sorry Brian, your wrong

I missed the film at the cinema, so I went out and bought the DVD as soon as it was released. In my opinion, its a stunning film with some very powerful scenes, and all brilliantly acted. So what if all the accents are English? I prefer a natural accent to one thats so obviously “put on” And your comment

Filmmakers who are willing to use children in peril stories just to make you shed a tear aren’t doing anything put pulling at your heartstrings. To what end? If it doesn’t feel real, it’s just manipulation.
Just to remind you, it is based upon a book, where Shmuel and Bruno are actually both young boys, did you really expect the script writers to make them adults? And as for your comment about Shmuel just being a device, if it wasnt for him there would be no film, or they would have just had to call it “The boy that moves away to live near a concentration camp”

Personally, I loved this film, brilliantly acted, Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon bounce off each other well, I think Asa should pursue his acting career, although he says he has no plans to. The scene in the kitchen with David Hayman playing Pavel and Asa is brilliant also, and one of my favourite scenes simply because the two characters work so well together. It also has a brilliant score and I think it is a pretty convincing plot. Although the ending is VERY shocking to say the least, I think it was a good ending and believable. If the boys had been saved, it would have been to “Hollywood” and I hate Hollywood endings!

arun's picture

I personally liked the bok

I personally liked the bok better evn though the movie is great. Maybe its because I tried the book first and the movie second, it might’ve been the other way around if i tried the movie first. Any way. its a great book and a movie

Noelle D.'s picture

Are You Kidding?

What do you mean: “What’s the point here? That some Nazi families learned some hard lessons during WWII?”

If you didn’t see any symbolism in the way those two boy died together, than you have no right to be a critic at all. The family learning a lesson has nothing to do with it. Them dieing together showed the audience that it could have been anyone in that situation. Hitler picked the Jews to kill off and everyone went along with it, but as you see in this film, Bruno looked the same, talked the same, acted the same and in the end, died the same. It showed us that it could have been anyone in the Jews place because the deaths were senseless and pointless. A precious Aryan German was killed in that gas chamber and no one noticed it. It symbolized the point that the Jews were no different than those who surrounded Bruno.

At least that’s what I got from it. And such a ridiculous question makes me wonder about your credibility.

Roger's picture

The quote at the very

The quote at the very beginning of the movie helps set the tone for the viewer. “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” -John Betjemen
This film was from an 8 year old’s perspective. I do have to agree, though, that the British accents really hindered the film and an excellent method for this film, from an adult perspective, would have been for it to be in German and use subtitles or at least use a tool that has not been used for a while where the movie starts in German with subtitles then moves into English. Just a thought.

Anonymous's picture

Great Movie

I think that the movie was portrayed in english because the movie wasn’t necessarily shown to reflect the lesson learned by a german family. I think the main point was to express how the WWII events and concentration camps were falsely presented to many young people at the time, and how one such youth saw past the false disclosures to the actual reality of the war. Many movie goers who may be unaware of what actually occurred during these times probably speak english. So I think portraying it in english definitely reflects the filmmakers’ firm understanding of the audience that would learn from this.

Brad's picture


I just want to extend my thanks yous the people who defended this film. As a an individual growing up with a Jewish background, I was instantly able to connect to the complexity of the situation. This film highlights the innocence of children and the beauty of the human spirit. We should all learn to accept each other for who we are, not what we believe in. The asshole who reviewed this movie has NO IDEA what he was even supposed to get out of this.

Anonymous's picture

you’re are really stupid

you’re are really stupid this book is amazing. it is very powerful and gets its point across. the symbolism is absolutely outstanding as well.on that note you can do yourself a-hole.

Anonymous's picture

The Problem With Hollywood

Your review seems to be the perspective of Hollywood. The key to a good movie from the viewing audience is something that we can connect with. The problem with the people in Hollywood is that they are more worried about their craft than telling a good story. This, in my opinion, was a great story. I breaks the Holocaust down to it’s simplest form and reveals it for what it really was. Seeing it from the perspective of a child brings to light the human indecency that occurred during these dark moments of the world. It refines the definition of innocence of man before being tainted by adulthood and the evils that we are led into through persuasion and ego.

As for the movies, it’s not about the age of the character, it’s the story. When will you critics ever figure that out. There is one thing I can count on you for though. I can usually tell when a good movie is out when all the critics think it’s a bad movie. I know then that is a movie I definitely want to see. And so is the case with this one. Two thumbs WAY UP!

Mike Coleman's picture

This film deserved a much

This film deserved a much better review from a more competent critic. All you have done sir is to create a scenario that has caused this movie to not stack up to the “Blockbuster” movies of Hollywood. Critics like you hurt great movies like this and have a profound affect on the outcome of many young talented actors future careers. You have done a great disservice by negatively critiquing this movie. Perhaps you shouldn’t be so concerned about their British accents and more about the content of their characters. If you want to know the truth, they need to speak with an accent that can be understood much better than a thick Polish one or German. To create a mass appeal it has to be more internationally recognized. You certainly cannot use American accents (I am an American), for that surely would not fit at all. I do believe you have too much “Hollywood” idealism when critiquing this movie. That they used children to tug at our “Heartstrings” followed right along with the book and symbolized the innocence that was still occuring even while the atrocities of the Holocaust were being carried out. Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) had only one idea why he was there, because he was Jewish. No true understanding of the hatred and despise the Nazis felt towards his people and how they were viewed as lowly vermin. I am not a Jewish person but you don’t have to be feel for his character and the loss of his innocence without ever really knowing it was there. He was a boy who would have much rather been out playing. Not working in a concentration camp waiting for his turn to die. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) played a purely innocent part of having no idea what his father’s true job was. Blind innocence in the face of a tragedy that has gone down as one of the worst crimes in human history. Have a heart yourself sir, I am the father of three children and I viewed this movie as if one of my own were involved in it. I am a 39 year old man and I cried like a little girl. So, yes they did tug at my heartstrings, that is what this movie was about. Something to pour your heart out to and to finally shock you with the tragic ending. Put yourself in the story and appreciate it for what it is. Innocence and the loss of it without really knowing it was ever there.

Anonymous's picture

Review? What Review?

Having just watched the DVD I found a need to say something about this “precious” review. From the get go it appears that the reviewer set out to hate the DVD and this film, and quite badly at that. Yes it’s full of British accents, in the same way that Schindler’s List is, yet in neither film does it detract from the very fine performances nor the quality of either film.

Indeed were the rest of the English-speaking world to express such irritation at American accents in films, there are many fine films we would never see.

I fail to see how having the film in another language might have made it better or worse but it perhaps would have satisfied the sensibilities of this serious reviewer. There are some cogent facts here. This is a film of a children’s book about an extremely emotive topic. Films about children inevitably evoke emotions and consequently accusations of manipulation. Many people do not like subtitles. Children certainly don’t. BBC Films is a British organisation and is known to produce drama in English with, not surprisingly, people with British accents.

What is most disappointing about the review is that there is none. I am no better informed about the film than I was before I read it but I am certainly informed about the long list of issues the reviewer has with the film. 1/5 for that review because at least he does mention the storyline.

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