Haunting Pajamas makes for sleepless nights

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“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is an extraordinarily smart and economical film about the contagiously evil effects of the Holocaust on those who carried it out.

British director Mark Herman’s adaptation of John Boyne’s novel sure-handedly balances a child’s naïve point of view with the viewer’s superior knowledge of history and adult relationships. Coming in the wake of hundreds of films that have tackled the Holocaust, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” succeeds startlingly well in depicting both the horror and the banality in fresh, effective ways.

All that praise, however, comes with a caveat: One’s appreciation for the picture depends almost entirely on whether you buy its shocking (though not unforeseeable) ending. If you don’t — and I didn’t — then your esteem for everything that preceded it may pale slightly.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which is rated PG-13, opens Friday, Nov. 7, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.

The English-language film unfolds through the eyes of Bruno, an 8-year-old German boy blissfully unaware of the realities of war unfolding far from the enveloping wooden house where he lives with his parents and older sister.

No child likes change, and Bruno is particularly disappointed when his father, a Nazi officer, announces that he’s been promoted and the family must pick up and move to the countryside. Populous Berlin and its numerous playmates are supplanted by the isolation of an austere, uninviting house in the middle of nowhere.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) spies what he thinks is a farm from his room, a discovery that prompts his parents to board up the window. We quickly discern that it’s a concentration camp, and that his father (an imposing David Thewlis) is its new commandant.

The film’s protagonist, ostensibly, is Bruno, and we anticipate that the plot will detail his gradual awakening to the unspeakable crimes his nation is engaged in and, perhaps most pointedly, his father’s complicity. But in fact, the character that adult audiences will most identify with is his mother (Vera Farmiga), a loyal wife who begins to sense how the ruthless Nazi game plan is poisoning her family.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” achieves the rare feat of making us empathize with the mother’s predicament without making the Nazis remotely attractive. In fact, Farmiga comes to serve as the viewer’s emotional touchstone.

Meanwhile, desperate for a playmate, Bruno sneaks out the back gate and through the woods until he reaches the “farm.” He meets a boy a bit like him, only he’s Jewish and on the other side of the fence.

It’s a little difficult to suspend one’s disbelief during the scenes between the boys, even if we take the film as a fractured fairy tale instead of a slice of realism. Nonetheless, the unease generated by the mix of childish optimism and lurking tragedy is palpable.

In the movies, Nazis are typically so despicable that we root for their destruction in the most painful and satisfying manner. In this film, the uniformed Nazis carry the brunt of the responsibility, but the punishment extends to all Germans.

That’s a powerful and perhaps comforting moral, but the film isn’t intended as a history lesson so much as a cautionary tale. Consequently, our reaction is more complicated, and decidedly less cathartic.

The implication that no one is truly innocent when genocide is being carried out, and that everyone is morally responsible, speaks to our own time and an array of circumstances. Viewed from that angle, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” doesn’t leave any viewers off the hook.

Which brings us to the ending, which is over the top, although not in terms of graphic gore or another form of bad taste. Rather it has the hold-your-breath, don’t-tell-me-this-is-happening quality of a children’s fairy tale.

If it hits you as intended, “Pajamas” will indeed give you a sleepless night or two.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” opens Friday, Nov. 7 at the Cinema Century 9, 835 Market St., S.F.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.