Film, like all art, is seduction.
The film experience is analogous to the romantic experience. We, the audience, must be wooed. The right things need to be said and done for us. He needs to open the doors for us. We need compliments and attention. The director needs to pick up the check. Otherwise we're not going to kiss him goodnight and we're certainly not going to spend the night. All films are emotional manipulation but directors must do the right things if we, the audience, are to consent to where he wants to take us. You can show us whatever you want but if you can't necessarily make us feel and think what you want.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" was a successful seduction right up until the end. I appreciated the film on many levels, primarily intellectual and aesthetic. And then it went for a sick, manipulative ending it did not earn. I haven't been brought to such fury at a movie's ending since "Mr. Woodcock." At least that was just a dumb comedy. This is worse, though, here the tool of emotional manipulation is the horror of the holocaust, a near-sacred subject in our society.
Set in Nazi Germany, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" focuses on the perspective of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield.) Bruno's father is Ralf (David Thewlis,) a Nazi commandant who takes his son, wife Elsa (Vera Farmiga,) and 12-year-old daughter Gretal (Amber Beattie) to live "out in the country" where he'll oversee a concentration camp.
Bruno is disappointed to leave his friends and finds himself bored since he is without playmates. His father brings in a tutor (Jim Norton) who begins indoctrinating Gretal and Bruno into Nazism. Gretal gets rid of her dolls and starts putting up Nazi posters and Adolf Hitler pin-ups.
The younger Bruno is less interested in Nazi ideology and instead starts exploring forbidden territory both physically and mentally. His mother declares the back of the house "out of bounds" since the camp is so close as to be seen from the window. Bruno, who fashions himself an explorer, obeys until his curiosity gets the best of him.
Passing through the woods he finally discovers a playmate, a pale-skinned boy named Shmuel (Jake Scanlon) on the other side of an electrified fence. Over the course of several visits a friendship develops. Bruno brings toys and food for the starving Shmuel. This relationship as well as the kindness of Pavel (David Hayman,) an older Jew used in the home as a servant, conflict with the poisonous ideology taught by Bruno's father and tutor.
The film makes the decision to limit its perspective to Bruno. We only see and know what Bruno knows. This stylistic choice is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. On the one hand we're able to stick ourselves in Bruno's shoes more easily. We're not experiencing a character, we're remembering what it was like to be eight-years-old.
On the other hand it means that the characters can only be developed to a limited degree. We only have a rough idea of who Ralf, Elsa, Gretal, Shmuel, the tutor, and even Bruno are. We don't really understand them as human beings but rather as rough sketches. As such I'm unable to establish a genuine emotional connection with the characters and the story as a whole. It's not drama; it's fable. So, like a fable, I connect with it on an intellectual level instead of an emotional one.
And for much of the film I'm really digging the intellectual content. The central idea of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is about a child discovering evil in the world. This is serious, challenging stuff. We see as adults try and indoctrinate a child into an ideology of evil and he rebels. Despite my lack of emotional engagement, I'm deeply intrigued.
And then what does the film do with this compelling material? It chucks it out the window in favor of a cliché about the Holocaust. It delivers a soul-crushing ending to a film that doesn't work on an emotional level.
I was generous enough in my suspension of disbelief at the absurdity of a concentration camp being so poorly guarded that a German and Jewish boy could meet every day at the fence. I'll give it that for the sake of its fable-like nature but its ending just stretches it until it snaps.
As the pieces started to fall into place in the final ten minutes of the film I was shocked not by the horror of the holocaust and the evil of humanity but at the sheer audacity of the filmmakers. As I watched I didn't really know what to make of it: "Are you serious? Are you really doing this to your audience? Is this some kind of sick joke? Is this some kind of parody of what a melodramatic, give-me-an-Oscar, Holocaust movie would be? This is something I'd see on Family Guy or South Park mocking pretentious filmmakers! Are you really doing this with the Holocaust? Are you actually expecting me to buy this ending?"
The hubris of it! You have this nice date, the guy is intellectual and thoughtful but you don't love him in the slightest. And then right at the end he propositions you in the most obscene terms imaginable. How is one to react? Simple: smack them across the face, walk away, and warn your girlfriends not to accept his invitation to dinner under any circumstances.