In "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust are glimpsed through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, and somehow this makes them seem even more unspeakable. Bruno (the marvelous young actor Asa Butterfield) is the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer, Ralf (David Thewlis), who moves his family from Berlin to a remote countryside home that is walled off from a "farm" in the far distance. In fact, what is being walled out is a concentration camp, with Ralf acting as its commandant.
Bruno's mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) is kept in the dark for a long time about her husband's murderous duties. When she learns, she snaps. Not so scrupulous is Bruno's elder sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), who is enamored of a sadistic young Nazi lieutenant (Rupert Friend) and adorns her bedroom walls with Hitler Youth posters. Isolated and uncomprehending, without pals to play with, Bruno is bored stiff. One day, although forbidden to do so, he ventures beyond the wall. Running up against the barbed-wired camp enclosure, he befriends a Jewish boy his own age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon).
Bruno's innocence, like Shmuel's, prevents him from perceiving the enormity of the horror. He wonders why Shmuel can't leave the "farm" and play. Scruffy and starving, Shmuel replies matter-of-factly that he can't because he's a Jew.
It took me a while to adjust to the mostly British-sounding cast standing in for Germans, but at least it's a time-worn convention. Writer-director Mark Herman, adapting the novel by John Boyne, is careful to stage the film almost entirely from Bruno's point of view. This makes for a far creepier experience than if the story had been told straight. It's as if we are watching the ritualistic sacrifice of an innocent.
Bruno is the darling of his family and his father is quite tender with him. The audacity of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" lies precisely in Herman's decision to portray Ralf as a loving father. Thewlis's performance is so layered that we can believe this man is capable of a monstrousness equal to his familial devotion. And yet the great conundrum of the Holocaust is that it was perpetrated by human beings, not monsters. Few movies have rendered this puzzle so powerfully. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.)