It takes a child to see the truth and speak it, even when adults are working hard to cover it up with defensiveness, justification and deceit. Though it is difficult to tell the story of the Holocaust to children, John Boyne offers an amazing presentation in his fable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Taking this fiction to the screen as director and writer of the screenplay, Mark Herman creates a compelling study of innocence in the face of horrific evil. Although it is written for children, it is not a film young children should see.

The central character is Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an inquisitive 8-year-old child of a German SS officer played by David Thewlis. An upper-level officer, Bruno’s father is given a promotion during the war and we soon discover it is as commandant of a concentration camp. A father whose wife and children are Christians, he hides the truth from them that his camp is not a working camp but a death camp.

Bruno’s mother, played by Vera Farmiga, is a beautiful and sensitive person who is pleased to see her daughter say her bedtime prayers. This daughter, Gretel (Amber Beattie), though only 12 years old, is quickly indoctrinated by the tutor brought in to teach Bruno and her in their home.

The unlikely setting of living on an estate across a wooded area from the camp sets up the story. Bored because there is no one to play with, Bruno makes his way through the woods to the “farm” next door. There, he meets a young Jewish boy behind the fence whose name is Shmuel (Jack Scanton). Delighted to discover that they are the same age, the two strike up a friendship in the hidden corner of the compound across an electrified fence.

When his father invites other SS officers to view a propaganda film about the camp that he had made for the Reich, Bruno sneaks a peek. Seeing the “good treatment” of the “happy” Jewish prisoners enforces his hope and belief that his father is a good man and he does not fear the camp itself. It is this lack of understanding that creates the tension and tragedy of the story.

Though many argue that the fable doesn’t respect the atrocity of the camps, there is a ring of truth to the tale. Whether willfully ignorant or tragically deceived, many of the German people were like Bruno and his mother.

When his mother discovers the truth, she despairs and begs to take the children away from her husband and flee the atrocity of the camp. Though the wealth and status of her husband’s position is difficult to give up, it is his increasingly secretive and powerful control that denies her agony and repeated requests to leave.

Evil often rewards its willing participants with wealth and power until it exacts payment. That we always pay evil its due is clearly shown within the film.

The title and the story are intertwined into a tale of innocence and evil. It is a tale of friendship and betrayal, innocence lost and regret, as well as the tragic consequence of racism and nationalism played out in murderous blame and genocide. It is a tale that has been told in fables and in blood for generations. Perhaps if we tell it often enough we will finally hear and learn from its truth.


» When Bruno’s mother discovers how close they are to the concentration camp, she gets upset. But when she finds out that it is really a death camp, she gets angry. What would be your reaction if this situation occurred today?

» The ease with which Bruno’s sister is convinced to hate Jewish people is disconcerting. Do you believe that a young 12-year-old can be praying one night and within months be hating a race of people? Why?

» The assertion that the Jews were “not people” is how any Holocaust is justified. This is what many are saying about children in the womb, that they aren’t really people. What do you think this belief will do to us as a culture? How could the impact be like what the holocaust did to Europe?

Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit