The plot follows the promotion of an SS officer (David Thewlis) addressed only as "Father" and wife, (Vera Farmiga) known only as "Mother" who pack up their kids, Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and Gretel (Amber Beattie) and move from affluent Berlin to the country where Father is overseeing a WWII concentration camp. The well-to-do German family arrives at an expansive stockade-looking house complete with soldiers as guards. A menacing environment all its own, it's not the ideal place for adventure-loving kids to play.
Bruno's imaginative brain and quizzical demeanor evolves all around him. With his friends and charmed life left behind, Bruno grows solitary and lonely. Through his bedroom window, Bruno sees what he believes to be farmers wearing pajamas working in their fields. Due to the strict boundaries of the premises, Bruno is only allowed to play in the front yard where he can be supervised, but he finds ample opportunities to sneak out the back and explore. This leads to the "farmers'" compound where he befriends a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who's about Bruno's age, wearing those funny pajamas on the other side of the barbwire fence. Their relationship begins in a shy, suspicious way and then evolves into a childlike kindred spirit. Their dialogue reveals their naiveté about what's right and wrong in a world collapsing around them.
Bruno's home life becomes an exercise anti-Semitic indoctrination. The parents maintain a "Leave It To Beaver" facade while force-feeding their children Hitler's ideologies. Sister Gretel is quickly brainwashed, embracing Nazi propaganda while becoming infatuated with Lt. Kotler (a creepy Rupert Friend). Bruno's newfound friendship prompts him to question his father's Nazi beliefs. Mother grows increasingly disillusioned when Kotler makes the offhand comment that "they smell worse when they burn," bringing the atrocities next door into their home. As the vagueness surrounding the extermination camp diminishes, domestic life crumbles.
Herman's direction keeps the film handsome, striking and well shot, giving it a nice sense of sterile formality that masks the turmoil lying underneath the surface. The film maintains certain degrees of ambiguity, keeping the audience intrigued, but it takes liberties with some of the historical elements of the film.
Thewlis gives a finely subdued take on a father desperately trying to keep his family together, under a cloud of evil. Farmiga does a good job as the mother caught up in emotional torment, but the real standouts are Scanlon and Butterfield. The meetings between Shmuel and Bruno are extremely believable, revealing and poignant. Both actors are phenomenal, especially in minor things like face twitches and eye movements telling volumes about how they feel. The characters both learn a great deal from each other and about life.
Striped Pajamas is an effective psychological study of the twisted reasoning behind prejudice, ethnic cleansing, and one of history's most incomprehensible episodes. It never strays from the deep, dark, sinister vision of it all, even when viewed through a child's eye.
Starring David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon
Writer/Director: Mark Herman