The lives of outsiders, from Potter to new Pajamas

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“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” isn’t the sort of film one might initially expect from David Heyman — the British producer of the “Harry Potter” movie franchise, the highest grossing in cinematic history.

Harry Potter, of course, is the bespectacled orphan who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and battles the evil Lord Voldemort over the course of seven books and five films so far (three more are expected by 2011). The fantasy movies are set in an elaborate magical world filled with giants, sorcerers and all manner of special-effects beasts.

In contrast, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” based on a book by John Boyne and due in theaters Nov. 7, is set during a very real historical period: the Holocaust. The story is told from the perspective of 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), who is chagrined when his father (David Thewlis, who plays Remus Lupin in the “Potter” films) takes over as commandant of a remote labor-turned-death camp.

Having no one to play with in his new environs, the sheltered Bruno is fascinated by the children working on what he thinks is a “farm” far away in the distance. Bored and curious, he ignores warnings not to explore the back garden and heads for the “farm,” where he meets Shmuel, a Jew his own age who lives a parallel, if alien life on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Bruno’s innocent questions about the camp lead to a forbidden friendship that has devastating consequences for both boys.

Although the milieu — which includes barracks and a gas chamber — is light years from Hogwarts’ fictional world, Heyman noted some thematic similarities. The Potter books are filled with metaphors for racism and ethnic cleansing — including characters who refer to wizards as “pure-bloods,” “half-bloods” or mudbloods (a racist slur meaning mixed or non-magical parentage).

Similarly, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” explores “issues of prejudice and ignorance — and ultimately, compassion and empathy,” Heyman, 47, said in a telephone interview from his London home. “It’s about how one engages with people who are ‘other’ — who are on the opposite side of the metaphorical fence.”

Heyman’s own family story is set, in part, in Nazi Europe. The producer’s Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman (the original spelling might have been Heymann), was an economist, newspaperman and broadcaster based in Leipzig, and was one of the last announcers to speak out against Hitler in early 1933.

“He was on the radio, the authorities came for him, and he had to bicycle out of Germany,” the producer said. “When he arrived in England, he was at first interned in a camp because he was a German citizen.”

In 2007’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” 15-year-old Harry secretly trains classmates to fight the genocidal Lord Voldemort and his henchmen, the Death Eaters. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter, has compared Harry’s fictional guerrilla group to the French Resistance; Heyman also sees parallels.

“The echoes of World War II occur throughout the [‘Phoenix’] film,” he said. “Voldemort and his followers are obsessed with the preservation of blood purity; they’re not Nazis but they recall the politics and attitudes of Nazi Germany. And aesthetically — although it’s a cliché — the [Death Eater] Lucius Malfoy and his family are blond, like Hitler’s ideal of the quintessential Aryan.” Lucius Malfoy is played by Jewish actor Jason Isaacs.

Heyman said he did not set out to make a movie that dealt more directly with the Holocaust, but then another unpublished manuscript — a book now titled “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable” — arrived in his office around 2005. The John Boyne book, titled “The Boy in Striped Pyjamas” outside of the United States, would go on become an international best seller (sound familiar?).

Some observers have criticized the book (and now the movie) for trivializing the Holocaust, but Heyman hopes the film will lead viewers to become interested in the subject of the Holocaust in general.

“I hope they will go on to read books like ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,'” he said.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” opens Nov. 7 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal