Berlin, 1940s. Eight year-old Bruno returns from playing with his school friends to find his home bustling with preparations: his father, a Nazi officer, has just been promoted to a new job in the countryside. Finding it difficult to settle into his new life, Bruno is intrigued by the existence of an odd sort of farm he can see from his bedroom window, where all the residents seem to be wearing striped pyjamas. When he tries to find out more about the ‘farm‚‘ he is told not to concern himself with it and certainly not to go near it. We know what Bruno does not, that the ‘farm’ is Auschwitz extermination camp. Wandering through the woods one day, he arrives at a barbed wire fence. On the opposite side, a small boy in striped pyjamas is emptying rubble from a wheelbarrow. Thrilled that he has finally found someone his own age to play with, Bruno starts making daily visits to his new friend Shmuel, all the while keeping their meeting secret from his parents and sister. On one of their final meetings, Bruno learns that Shmuel’s father has been missing for three days and promises to help his friend to look for his father. He makes the fateful decision to cross over the wire fence – where he is swiftly caught up in a monstrous clockwork, sealing his fate along with that of his friend and countless fellow innocents on the other side.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fable intended to provide a unique perspective on the effects of prejudice, hatred and violence on innocent people, particularly children, during wartime. Through the eyes of a fanciful, eight year-old German boy who is largely shielded from the realities of the war, we witness a forbidden friendship that develops between Bruno and Shmuel – children physically separated by a barbed wire fence whose lives become inescapably intertwined. “It goes without saying that a work of fiction set in the time and place of the Holocaust is contentious and any writers who tackle such stories had better be sure of their intentions before they begin. This is perhaps particularly important in the case of a book written for children,” says John Boyne, Irish author of the bestselling book. “For me, a 34-year-old Irish writer, it seemed that the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence, with a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of what he was caught up in. I believe that this naiveté is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period.”
The performances are very well handled – particularly Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock, David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga as the adults inhabiting different sides of this monstrous division. As the children, Asa Butterworth and Irish newcomer Jack Scanlon, are both convincing with the Irish boy clearly destined for greater things. “The Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel says if you weren’t there, don’t write about it,” says author John Boyne. “At the same time, we’re told that we must never forget. So I believe that, as the decades go on, it is up to artists to find new ways of telling this story, of reminding the world of those who died. If you approach the subject in a non-exploitative way, trying not to trivialize it but to tell the story another way to reach a new audience, you are accomplishing your goal.”