The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would have been a masterpiece in another dimension. If the holocaust had never happened, and this was a movie about a fictional event, the excellence of the script, acting and cinematography would have made this a true classic. However, despite the noble intentions and talents of all its creative team this is an offensive, lamentable distortion of the truth.
Writer Director Mark Herman says that he wanted this film to be a good way to introduce the discussion of the Holocaust for children. It may be a good way to start a discussion for kids about racism, about loyalty, learning how to deal with flawed parents, and a million other things, but not THE holocaust.
Here are the two reasons why this is offensive:
a) Historical distortion -A story of a friendship across a fence between a Jewish kid on the concentration camp side, Shmuel, and his German friend Bruno, who is the child of the death camp's commandant, is UTTERLY false and impossible. Most kids were put to death quite early, and they did not live with adults.
b) Not respecting the intelligence of the characters - Did no one figure out what was happening? No one seems to be aware, in the wake of burning stinking ovens and rapidly disappearing people what is happening in the camp except the Commandant himself. This includes his sensitive and elegant wife and mother of Bruno, who only at the end realizes what is going on in the 'farm' that she can see out the window of her villa, and the people in the camp itself, who seem to think that all the missing people are actually missing, smokestacks and all.
c) Clearing everyone morally - Everyone, as Jean Renoir says, has their reasons, and we empathize with them all, from the ntisemitism he teaches the children like mother's milk, to the brutal murderous blonde young Nazi who is covering up for his dissenting father, to finally, the commandant, who looks conflicted and not entirely convincing when he says what 'important work he's doing for his country'.
I realize that Bernigni's 'Life is Beautiful' covers much the same territory, but it looked like a fable, was presented in its story telling tone and aesthetically in a stylized way, so no one would think for a second that this was how it really happened. '...Striped Pajamas' attempts to look real, like a slice of history, but it's a slice of grotesque fakery.
The cast is universally excellent, with the spectacular Vera Farmiga doing her usual intelligent and complex work, the kids Butterfield and Scanlon touch the heart with their honesty and open heartedness, as well as all the minor roles. To the film's credit, it has a wrenching, harrowing and surprisingly dark ending, unlike superior films like 'Schindler's List' which despite all it gets right, has an upbeat ending, which the holocaust did not have, certainly not for the survivors.