The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Starring: David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Amber Beattie, Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock

Directed by: Mark Herman

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Asa Butterfield as Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

When I was eight, the same age as Bruno, the central protagonist in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I read a book called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. It was about a Jewish girl who escapes Germany before the Second World War, and it talked about the Holocaust.

I was horrified. Could this really be true, that the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in giant gas ovens?

Yes, it was.

So I didn't find it at all hard to believe that Bruno, on moving to a big country house on the doorstep of a death camp run by his father, believes the ramshackle collection of huts behind the electric fence is actually a farm.

Gradually, he learns that he really shouldn't be friends with the shaven-headed boy he meets beyond the barbed wire, the boy who mysteriously always wears stripy blue pyjamas.

Asa Butterfield and Vera Farmiga in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Certainly his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), a blonde Hitler Youth wunderkind in the making, wouldn't approve, and much as his mother (Vera Farmiga) is disgusted by her husband's job, she wouldn't want the unorthodox friendship to flourish either.

And with good reason, for while the film may paint a naïve picture of childhood innocence, it certainly doesn't shy away from the sickening horrors of the Holocaust. Kudos, then, to David ('What's it like to be the Commandant of a death camp, 'ey?') Thewlis, for taking on the difficult, painful role of Bruno's father, part benevolent pater familias, part murderous monster who calmly discusses the construction of new gas ovens as a way to 'increase productivity'. (Wisely, he uses his own accent, as do the rest of the cast – no 'Allo 'Allo good moanings here, thank God.)

However, the real plaudits have to go to the child actors who play Bruno and his Jewish friend Shmuel, Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon, who give beautifully natural, believable performances.

Like Italian death camp tragic-comedy Life Is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas combines charm and humour with unspeakable horror. The dark side of this year's other glimpse into the mind of a child, Son of Rambow, it's a tale of childhood friendships breaking boundaries and surviving betrayals – but sadly and inevitably, there's no happy ending here.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a sensitive, beautifully crafted film, credible, understated, superbly acted and compelling. But it's also an important film that everyone should see. Lest we forget. Or lest, in fact, we never even knew.

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