The Conflicted Perpetrator

Friday, November 7, 2008

The flowers are blooming. The sun is shining. Children are frolicking. Jews are being loaded onto trucks.

The Berlin of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" unrolls as an as-yet-unbombed '40s stronghold of Teutonic family values, blinkered Germans and plummy-accented, English-speaking Nazis.

Few characters in film have been as relatively privileged, as morally conflicted and as willing to ignore it as Father (David Thewlis), the SS officer whose promotion will relocate him and his family from cosmopolitan Germany to the stark deathscape of a Nazi work camp. There, Father will oversee wholesale exterminations of human beings. Daughter Gretel (Amber Beattie) will become an apostle of Hitler. And Mother (the glorious Vera Farmiga) will do her best not to notice the smoke coming from the stacks she can see just beyond her curtained kitchen windows.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the young son of this benighted family, will befriend an inmate his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), hence the title and leaden symbolism of this adaptation of John Boyne's novel. Directed by talented populist Mark Herman ("Little Voice," "Brassed Off"), "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" asks the metaphysical question of what life would be like for the family of a concentration camp commandant. And the immediate question for viewers is: Should we care?

It takes an enormous capacity for moral relativism to empathize with participants in the Final Solution, and that includes small boys and morally myopic mothers. It also seems antithetical for anyone with even the shakiest of ethical standards to care a whit about the fate of these people, much less their moral dilemmas.

Although it's a far less objectionable Holocaust revision than, say, Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," Herman's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is yet another attempt to revisit a sorrowful event in history that should never be forgotten or used for entertainment.

-- John Anderson

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas PG-13, 93 minutes Contains disturbing Holocaust references. At Landmark's Bethesda Row.

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