Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a chilling tale of conflicting empathies and reconciling the pain of grief with the reality of unbearable, yet elongated, mass-murder.
After relocating from Berlin, a German family led by their patriarch, Ralph (David Thewlis), a highly regarded Nazi general in the early 1940s, settles a few miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the eight-year-old protagonist, eager to explore their new home and its surroundings, ignores his mother's wishes and hikes his way to the electric, barbed-wire fence outlining the nearby "farm," where he meets his new clandestine contemporary: Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an eight-year-old Jew at the work camp.
As time passes, Bruno daily visits the "farm," bringing food for his new friend and playing board games with him, the fence dividing them; because Bruno has no other friends in his new countryside home, their friendship develops rapidly.
Later on, Bruno's mother, Elsa (Vera Farmiga), discovers from one of the nearby soldiers' gaff that the occasional chimney fires from the concentration camp are fueled by the burning bodies of Jews cycled through the institution, and she grows increasingly disgusted and appalled at the death camp's inherent purpose, her husband being the scheme's grand leader.
Thus, intertwined with their daughter Gretel's (Amber Beattie) continued inundation and infatuation with Nazist propaganda is Elsa's subtle planning to escape with her children to a place separated from the genocidal monstrosities, all while Bruno realizes, in interacting with the Jews surrounding him, the utter fallibility of antisemitic pedagogy.
Finally, Elsa resolves to take Bruno and Gretel to cohabit with her parents, away from all of the despair, while Bruno sneaks out again to meet Shmuel and help him find his missing father. While scouring the cabins of the camp, the two boys become engulfed in a forced march to the gas chambers, as Elsa, Gretel, and their servant Maria (Cara Horgan) search for their lost son. After enlisting Ralph in the quest and locating Bruno's footsteps to the camp, Elsa's gradual deterioration overruns her with uncontrollable grief at the sight of Bruno's clothes lying innocently at the fence.
The irony is palpable: Ralph's own organization, fallaciously intended to better his children's future, murdered his own son. And, Elsa's growing ideological disgust with the Nazist mission failed to save her offspring.
On one level, it's effortless to empathize not with the Nazi family when their child dies; Ralph himself unshakeably holds the blood of thousands on his hands as the camp's leader—the death of his youngest is nothing compared to his deserved punishment. And yet, Elsa, already unsupportive of the Nazist final solution to annihilate the Jewish people, must reimmerse herself in grief for her son after she has already emotionally disintegrated from elongated exposure to the atrocities.
There is little evidence to suggest that the women of the film are the moral exemplars of the story, while solely the men insist upon continuing the massacre: Ralph, Gretel, Maria, and the many servicemen at the home clearly support the Reich, whereas Elsa and Ralph's mother (Sheila Hancock) actively oppose it, and Bruno demonstrates a lifelong affinity for the Jews surrounding him. Thus, the film may not merely be a stand for feminist ideals, as many of the women equally acclaimed the murderous organization.
Instead, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas demonstrates the utter obscurity of bereavement omnipresent in a wrongly purposed murder. Rather than directing our own sympathies, as Manohla Dargis contends, the film forces us to ruminate in our emotional insecurity and emerge from the confused bereavement better prepared to ameliorate the tragedies of our own existence, and preemptively halt modern injustices before we need to appropriate blame.