The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (PG-13) (93 min.) — We've seen the Holocaust memorably on screen through the eyes of opportunists (Schindler's List, The Counterfeiters) and clowns (Life Is Beautiful). Now add incredibly naive children to the list of unorthodox witnesses, and Mark Herman's film is one to forget.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as written by John Boyne, is subtitled "a fable." In the hyper-literal cinematic medium, a fable requires surrealism — think Pan's Labyrinth — that Herman refuses. This movie looks real while characters behave with increasingly faux purpose; if anyone did what he or she logically should, the movie wouldn't exist.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) may be excused because he's 8 years old, the son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) promoted to commandant of a death camp. That means leaving friends and a warm Berlin mansion for a lonely, severe castle near the camp. Only the commandant knows its ghastly purpose. One would think Bruno and his sister would be enrolled in a boarding school with their mother (Vera Farmiga) nearby, keeping them unaware.
No, Bruno is left to his own bored, curious devices, leading to secret meetings with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), also 8 years old and a Jew on the other side of an electrified fence. Bruno barely knows what a Jew is, with no idea of what his father is doing to them. Innocence is the last casualty of war in Herman's scheme of things.
Mother finally catches on, after a brutal dinnertime beating of a Jewish servant, and a horrid odor coming from the camp's chimneys. Bruno doesn't get it, even after Shmuel gets a black eye from a scary Nazi. All violence occurs off-screen in the movie, yet the audience's awareness makes the characters' ignorance unbelievable. That's when the surrealism factor should kick in.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas continues its charade until Bruno makes an innocent mistake with devastating consequences. Herman finally achieves a sense of realism, although through means that are tough to swallow. Then he stretches the suspense past our breaking point, creating a climax that almost creates sympathy for the devils. That can't be what Herman or Boyne intended. C-
Steve Persall, Times film critic