This moving and powerful film takes the novel approach of viewing the Holocaust from an innocent child’s point of view. It is a valuable teaching tool about man’s capacity for evil. It deserves to be ranked alongside "Schindler’s List," "Life is Beautiful" and "The Diary of Anne Frank."
The movie, based on John Boyne’s young adult novel, is written and directed by Englishman Mark Herman. The movie opens in 1940s Berlin where 8-year-old protagonist Bruno (newcomer Asa Butterfield) has to say goodbye to his friends. His family is moving to the countryside since his father, Ralph (David Thewlis, best known as Professor Remus Lupin in the "Harry Potter" movies), a high-ranking German officer, has received a promotion.
The immediate family also consists of overprotective mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga from "The Departed") and 12-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie).
This typical Christian family appears to be sophisticated, well-educated and possessing a strong moral background. They don’t seem much different from an average middle-class American family.
After they arrive at their new residence, Bruno notices a nearby farm with strange-looking farmers all dressed in pajamas. The dark-haired lad with blue eyes is lonely and inquisitive. He goes exploring in the neighboring forest in back of the house. This area is considered "off limits" and he has been advised by his parents never to go there.
He comes upon a clearing surrounded by barbed wire. On the other side of the fence, he meets a sad Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the character described by the title. Shmuel, who is also 8, tells Bruno that he is starving and needs food.
The movie revolves around the eight clandestine meetings between these two boys who form a timid and cautious friendship. They play a game of checkers and throw a soccer ball back and forth during their encounters. Shmuel even comes to the house to clean wine glasses and other small objects that require tiny hands.
It turns out the farm is really a concentration camp and the pajamas are standard prison garb. Although never named, it is Auschwitz because the blueprint that appears briefly in the film shows the four crematoria.
Elsa makes the biggest transformation when a German soldier remarks, ‘They smell even worse when they burn." She had thought it was just a hard-labor facility, and was unaware that Jews were actually being exterminated. Upon realizing the truth of her husband’s mysterious position as camp commandant, she confronts him by saying "This is not war. The man I married is a monster."
She decides to take the children away from this terrible place and return to Berlin. Before they embark, the two boys hatch a plan of their own. This leads to a shocking ending that may be disturbing for younger children. It is the perfect climax and absolutely necessary to personalize the horror and tragedy associated with the six million lives lost at the hands of Hitler and his Nazi henchmen.
The movie flashes by in 94 minutes and should dovetail nicely with the attention span of younger viewers accompanied by their parents. It should stimulate discussion about prejudice, tolerance and religious freedom.
Butterfield and Scanlon are believable and so polished in their respective roles. They carry this film on their shoulders. Farmiga shows off her acting chops and gives an Oscar-caliber performance.
The original musical score from Oscar-winning composer James Horner ("Titanic") is top drawer and never overwhelming.
The movie was shot on location in Budapest, Hungary. Rather than being in German with subtitles, the movie is much more accessible with the dialogue in flawless English.
This emotional and disturbing film has already received British Independent Film Award nominations for best director (Herman), best actress (Farmiga) and most promising newcomer (Butterfield).
This is one of the best movies of 2008. Opening at Glenwood Arts, AMC Studio 30 and Cinemark Palace on the Plaza.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"