The hardest history lesson
Film version of young-adult novel can’t meet its source’s instructive intentions
This Miramax/BBC production is based on a young-adult novel by John Boyne. I haven’t read the book, but the promotional material for the original publication in 2006 summarized the story as follows:
“Berlin 1942. When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.
“But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different [from] his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.”
That summary also serves for the film version—but only up to a point. The movie can make little Bruno, age 8, the center of the action, but it can’t really immerse the viewer in a child’s point of view the way that a novel or short story could. And the details of “Berlin 1942"—Nazi Germany in World War II—are going to be so unavoidably conspicuous and menacing in a movie narrative that Bruno’s innocence and naïveté get swamped in heavy-handed irony right from the start.
Writer-director Mark Herman brings a kind of smooth elegance to the presentation of all this, perhaps in an attempt to echo Bruno’s naïveté in scenic terms. But there is no getting around the painful historical details that become evident to us, if not to Bruno, almost immediately—his father is a Nazi officer in charge of a concentration camp, and the boy whom Bruno surreptitiously befriends is a prisoner in that camp, as is Pavel, the sad-looking middle-aged man who does menial chores around the house for Bruno’s parents.
It seems evident that Boyne’s story aims to be instructive to young readers who haven’t yet learned much about the Holocaust and the Nazi era in Germany. And it may be that the film can serve that purpose as well. But the movie version invokes an adult awareness of the situation via the variously conflicted perspectives of Bruno’s parents (played effectively, but with somewhat facile authority, by David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga), and those perspectives along with the not-so-innocent gaze of the camera leave the story’s contrivances even more glaringly exposed.
The pivotal element of the story—Bruno’s unlikely friendship with the imprisoned boy Shmuel—never attains real credibility, even though the child actors Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Jack Scanlon (Shmuel) are both very good. And the final, cruel plot twist (those “devastating consequences” alluded to earlier) creates a punishingly emotional climax that makes little real sense.
There’s a grotesque kind of sentimentality at work in this tale’s didacticism. It’s a history lesson that obscures more than it enlightens.