Film: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Powerful Innocence: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By Madelyn Ritrosky

And the power of a deceptively innocent title that belies the intensity of the film...  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas...  It’s an ironic title that captures the poignant innocence of childhood in the midst of a horrific time and place, a World War II Nazi concentration camp. 
 
More importantly, the film captures it.  It all started with the book of the same name, written by John Boyne, and according to Boyne and Mark Herman, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, the screen version is faithful to the novel.

(Photo above) Truly Moving Picture Award: Heartland Truly Moving Pictures Vice President and COO David L. Slaughter, Miramax Films President Daniel Battsek, Director/Writer Mark Herman, Actor David Thewlis, Heartland Truly Moving Pictures President and CEO Jeffery L. Sparks, Author John Boyne.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas had its North American premiere at the Heartland Film Festival’s Opening Night.  I had the opportunity to speak with Boyne, Herman, and one of the stars of the film, David Thewlis.  Thewlis, who is best known for his role in the Harry Potter films as Professor Lupin, plays the newly promoted commandant of a Nazi concentration camp and father of the little boy at the center of the film. 
 
I asked John Boyne how the novel came about, and he said he got the idea right after finishing Next of Kin in early 2004.  He said, “I just sat down and started writing it.  The idea for the story came out of thin air.” 
 
The very first image in his head was of “two boys at the fence” of a concentration camp, where the fence signifies a “portal to another world.”  As he started writing, he knew this would be the middle and he knew how it would end.  But Boyne explained that he didn’t set out to write about the Holocaust.   
 
(Photo left) Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and Asa Butterfield as Bruno. Photo Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Films.

Because Mark Herman is with the same agency as John Boyne, he was lucky enough to get an early look at the book in the summer of 2005.  He said, “I was very impressed” – so impressed that he bought the film rights. 
 
Herman’s most recent film at the time was the romantic comedy Hope Springs (2003), which he called “light” even though the main characters’ search for themselves gives the film some weight.  He also did comedy with Brassed Off (1996) even though it has coal mining layoffs as its backdrop. 
 
But when he read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – decidedly not comedy – he thought it would “touch a lot more people than Brassed Off because it’s a more serious subject.” 
 
Herman typically directs screenplays that he has adapted.  He explained that this allows him to be his own boss, that is, he can take several months and focus entirely on the transformation of the story into a screenplay.  He can fiddle to his heart’s content.    
 
Since the film is about childhood innocence in the midst of war, hatred, and brutality, I was curious how he auditioned 8-year-olds for the two central roles of Bruno, son of the Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, concentration camp prisoner.  The two boys become friends despite the huge divide that the fence represents.  
 
Herman said he asked the kids who auditioned what they knew about the Holocaust.  He felt it helped if they didn’t know too much, allowing their real-life innocence to inform their acting and their conception of the film’s subject matter.  
 
He hired Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Jack Scanlon (Shmuel) – and they are terrific.  There was an acting coach on set for them, and the three would often play games that helped the kids get into the right frame for upcoming scenes. 

(Photo right) Asa Butterfield as Bruno and Vera Farmiga as Mother Photo Credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Films.

Actor David Thewlis, who was very gracious when I said my son Jared wanted to meet a Harry Potter star, said that he, Asa Butterfield, and Vera Farmiga, who plays Bruno’s mother, spent lots of time together on their days off. 
 
“A lovely bond formed between Vera and Asa,” he said.  The friendships gave 9-year-old Asa people he could trust as they all worked on the film.  Thewlis pointed out that they actually talked little about scenes or the substance of the film during their free time.  “It’s a credit to Mark,” he said, how well the boys did in this film. 
 
Of course, the boys were working with talented cast and crew, and David Thewlis was perfect playing a father who loves his children and wife but who is also a Nazi officer.  It’s not a one-dimensional stereotype – we can see his good sides peeking through again and again even as we see his racist insensitivity. 
 
In fact, that was my hope when the screen faded to black at the end – that maybe there was hope for this one man’s redemption after all.  Yes, millions of people did die horrible, senseless deaths in World War II, but maybe there can be hope...
 
Since David Thewlis has directed a couple of films, I asked him about his interest in that side of filmmaking.  He laughed and said, “I found directing too stressful.”  Since he also acted at the same time, he worried that other actors considered him “indulgent or not good enough” if he did too many takes on himself – self-important if he did too few.  
 
I concluded the interview by asking Thewlis about his Harry Potter fame.  He explained that he is “much more well-known now because of the Harry Potter films, but I certainly don’t want that on my gravestone.”  It’s a two-edged sword.  He doesn’t feel it has affected perceptions of him within the industry.  In fact, he said that his Harry Potter fame played no part in how he landed his next two upcoming film roles. 
 
For a powerful statement about the senselessness of war, look out for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  It opens in theaters November 7, 2008. 

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