In Mark Herman
's adaptation of John Boyne's controversial children's bestseller offering a kid's-eye view of Holocaust, the young eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield
) has the wide, blue-eyed innocence of the unprotected. Sheltered and half in a fantasy world, he runs through city streets with his friends, his arms outstretched like wings, gliding untouched through the busy and congested world of adults. Herman bathes these opening scenes in a fantastic fairy-tale burnish, like a golden world ready to be lost.
Bruno shares a family dinner with his loving parents (Vera Farmiga
and David Thewlis
) and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie). With their sparkling British Masterpiece Theatre accents, the family appears as well-scrubbed paragons of British banality. (Even Richard Johnson, that great bastion of British nobility from the epics of the 1960s, is exhumed to appear as the family's Grandpa.) So it comes as a shock when Thewlis dons a German commandant's uniform for a going-away party and Herman quietly reveals that the Dad has been reassigned, taking the family with him. As Dad remarks, "Home is where the family is." In this case, however, home is Auschwitz and Dad is the new camp commandant, who will be supervising the mass exterminations. Article continues below
The family arrives at its new home, an imposing, Godless mansion, and dark smoke from the Auschwitz furnaces billows in the background. Herman frames this detail matter-of-factly, as one more image in the composition, trying to place the point-of-view somewhat from Bruno's perspective, which, as the film progresses, becomes trickier and trickier to maintain.
That's especially so when Bruno, being taught blatant hate from a rabid, though coolly controlled, anti-Semitic tutor, is told, "I think, Bruno, if you ever found a nice Jew, you would be the greatest explorer in the world." At that point, Bruno has already found his "nice Jew," another eight-year-old boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon
), a broken, bedraggled inmate of the concentration camp, whom Bruno sneaks out to see and pass the time with on the opposite side of barbed wire of the camp. The idea of a concentration camp is beyond Bruno's comprehension, thinking the place to be a farm where the farmers wear pajamas, and asking Shmuel if the tattooed number on his wrist is part of a game along with, "What do you burn in those chimneys?"
Herman shoots these scenes delicately, but it also sends the film into a real storybook mode, which makes the film disturbing in ways not intended. Bruno apparently has no problem meeting up with Shmuel every day by the barbed wire, and there is never a patrolling soldier in evidence, making Auschwitz look less like Auschwitz and more like a minimum-security honor's prison farm in South Carolina. And when the reality of Auschwitz takes hold of Bruno's family, all of Herman's delicate setup is abandoned. Gretel becomes an impassioned Hitler youth, Mom deteriorates into a shallow shell of her previously vibrant self, and Dad, as played by Thewlis, turns into a buffoonish caricature -- contemptuously blowing cigarette smoke, slamming his fist on a table demanding more wine, and adopted a popeyed, addled expression like a bad guy Nazi from an old Sgt. Fury comic book.
But Herman regains his footing for the harrowing final scene of the film, when Bruno digs under the fence to help Shmuel find his father. All the pretenses of the family are shattered as the charnel house smoke finally consumes Mom, Dad, Gretel, and Bruno, and the reality of who these ordinary people really are becomes a devastating experience for both the characters and the audience.