A New York Times best-selling novel that gave a child's-eye view of Nazi Germany and the World War II Holocaust is now a feature film. Alan Silverman spoke with the filmmakers and stars for this look at The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.
Bruno and Shmuel are unlikely friends who might be playmates were it not for the electrified barbed wire fence that separates them. Bruno is the inquisitive son of a rising star in the elite SS corps of Nazi Germany's Third Reich. The father's new assignment takes them from their comfortable Berlin home to a rural farm town where the lonely youngster spots some kids in the distance and asks his mother about visiting them.
Upon learning of his questions, Bruno's father boards up the window and warns his son to stay away.
Consumed by curiosity and desperate for a playmate, Bruno sneaks off through the woods and comes upon a remote corner of what he thought was the "farm." There he meets Shmuel on the other side of the barbed wire.
It is a concentration camp and Bruno's father, it turns out, is the commandant. In his schoolwork, the German boy is taught that Jews like Shmuel are sub-human; but that makes no sense to Bruno as the two new friends' lives become intertwined.
The Boy In The Striped Pajamas features David Thewlis as the father leading a double life.
"Most of the time we see him at home with the children and his wife; we don't even see him that much with the soldiers, so most of it was concentrated on him being a father," explains Thewlis. "There was no other way of doing it but to say I'm playing a loving father, but I keep in my head what else he was doing. Since we're not filming that we're not seeing that, so that was all the research that I did to keep remembering every night that that is what he is doing off-screen. When he is not in the house, that is what he is doing. So it was quite simple to do the affectionate, adoring father, but it was more of a challenge to keep in mind the atrocity."
Vera Farmiga co-stars as the wife who seems shocked by what her husband and their country are doing.
"It is maddening to me," Farmiga says. "I just don't understand how it is possible that they couldn't intuit to some degree what was happening. It was trying to grasp that. Is it willful refusal? It must be willful refusal to see what is going on: that apathy and heedlessness, not concerning yourself, having a very narrow scope."
These points of view are expanded from the original young people's novel by John Boyne. The Irish author says he is pleased that the film version is designed to appeal both to children and adults.
"I have always felt that book could be read by children and adults," Boyne says. "I think that the movie is certainly one that can be seen by both. It is a family film in the truest sense of that word: families can go together - grandparents, parents, children - and discuss it and talk about it afterwards. Kids can ask questions about things they don't understand, but this is a film that explores violence at its highest point and contains none."
Director Mark Herman adapted the novel into a screenplay and he also hopes families will see it together.
"I think it's especially important for kids to see the movie …to learn about the madness of racism and prejudice," Herman says. "If one kid comes out of this film thinking differently about those things than it's a film worth making."
The Boy In The Striped Pajamas stars young English actors Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon as the two eight-year-olds, Bruno and Shmuel. The film was shot on location in Hungary.