I'm not sure there was a big demand to see the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, but that's exactly what we get in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Mark Herman's faithful adaptation of John Boyne's heart-warming, bone-chilling young-adult novel. And what a pair of eyes! Asa Butterfield, who plays Bruno, the 8-year-old son of a German officer appointed the commandant of Auschwitz, has these crystal-blue irises that absorb the world around them like twin moons soaking up the sun. Bruno doesn't know exactly what his father (David Thewlis) does for a living. And he thinks the camp in the distance is a farm where all the workers wear striped pajamas. But he's a curious sort, a bit of an explorer, and it's not long before he's made friends with a sad-eyed boy (Jack Scanlon) on the other side of the barbed wire.
They even play checkers through the electric fence. Without getting shot! Boyne must have known what he was up against when he set out to write his book. And it's done in a faux-naf style (Bruno thinks Auschwitz is called Out-With) that's designed to take a lot of the sting out of history's least child-friendly event. But it's hard to resist the feeling, while watching the film, that this is simply no place for a child. And you start to notice that Bruno is awfully slow to catch on, even for an 8-year-old. Why? Perhaps it's the British accents sported by everyone in the cast, even our fellow American, Vera Farmiga, as Bruno's increasingly horrified mother. (She's slow to catch on, too.) It's a British production, designed to help young people understand the Holocaust, but maybe understanding shouldn't come quite so easily.
And maybe filmmakers should let the whole kid-Holocaust thing go. It brings out some of their worst instincts, disguised as their best instincts. Myself, I'm still reeling from Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. But at least Benigni stuck with his rose-tinted vision until the end. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has an ending that will leave your inner child hiding under the bed for years to come.