"The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" *** (94 minutes)

Sunday October 26, 2008

Off to the AFI Silver Theater for another great members-only event: the pre-release screening of Mark Herman's ("Brassed Off" & "Little Voice") film based on John Boyne's award winning children's novel of the same name-attended by both author and director. Screenwriter/director Herman tells this Holocaust fable mainly through the eyes of a German child about a German family who uproots from their posh surroundings when the patriarch (David Thewlis) is placed in charge of a Concentration Camp. His wife, ably played Vera Farmiga ("The Departed") , and his 2 children (Asa Butterfield & Amber Beattie) are initially kept under wraps about what lies just beyond the fringe of the "estate". Bored out of his wits, 8 year old Bruno starts to explore his surroundings and ends up meeting another 8 year old clothed in "striped pajamas" (Jack Scanlon) on the other side of the fence encircling what he believes is a farm. Meanwhile, his 12 year old sister (Amber Beattie) is slowing being indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset by their tutor and her attraction for a cruel German Soldier (Rupert Friend), who is housing his own secrets. Lacking anyone else he can relate to, young Bruno starts to closely bond with his new friend. Herman has used excellent production values to recreate the Nazi milieu. The cinematography and set design are top notch (the film was shot in Hungary), as is award winning composer James Horner's haunting soundtrack. My main problem: the use of distinguished British actors to play the German characters. It was hard to wrap my head around watching the Nazi monsters speaking in proper English accents. During the Q & A, Herman said he had no problem not using German dialogue with subtitles since the book itself was translated worldwide. I agree that the fable is universal and that it doesn't matter what language is on the printed page. It was just difficult matching that to the visual realism on the screen. And how often do you have a novelist and a screenwriter appearing together for a Q & A? Boyne said that, even though the screenplay was written by the Director, he revealed that Herman forwarded all the drafts to him for input. Boyne also noted that though the ending was slightly different, he wished he had written the scene when Bruno discovers a collection of naked dolls from the Jewish children inmates piled high in the basement of the house. I asked the filmmaker whether he considered filming in black and white. He responded that he did indeed consider it but nixed the idea stating that it has been done that way before. Herman tells the story with great economy as he effectively covers arcs of great emotion in a little over an hour and a half.

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