March 8, 2009 -- This downer of a movie is a not-so-different kind of film about the Holocaust. It begins during World War II with children playing happily in Berlin, and there is a constant downward spiral towards tragedy from then to the end. You know from the get-go that something tragic is going to happen. You just don't know the details of the tragedy until the very end.
Like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” this film is told largely from a child's point of view. Young Bruno (played by Asa Butterfield) is an innocent who gets caught up in something monstrous. His father (David Thewlis of the “Harry Potter” films), is the commandant of a concentration camp where Jews are gassed and burned. Bruno does not understand that his best friend, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) is a prisoner in this camp. Shmuel himself doesn't understand that his family has been murdered and that he is next on the list. Bruno doesn't understand the monstrous evil that the camp represents, or that his father could be responsible for the murder of so many people. Even so, Bruno still betrays his best friend out of fear. Bruno's mother, (Vera Farmiga of “The Departed”) figures out what is going on in the death camp and eventually decides to move out. Her husband defends what he, and Nazi Germany, are doing to the Jews.
Aside from Bruno's father and some of his officers, the film doesn't dwell on the Nazis as villains. It instead focuses on the relationship between Bruno, his older sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie) and Shmuel. Gretel has a crush on a young officer in her father's command and she adopts the racial superiority beliefs of him and of the family tutor Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), which upsets her mother. Even Bruno's grandmother (Sheila Hancock) is opposed to the direction Hitler has chosen for Germany. She chastises her son at the family's going away party in Berlin. “You used to adore dressing up,” she says of Bruno's father's army uniform, “Does it make you feel special, the uniform? Or what it stands for?” Bruno's grandmother becomes a political liability and is banned from family gatherings. The film explores another instance of a man who refuses to report the anti-Nazi activities of his father. All of this is done in a sly, indirect way.
While Bruno and Shmuel play together on opposite sides of an electrified, barbed wire fence, the enormity of the evil surrounding them builds throughout the film. The evil surrounding the characters in the film remains unspoken throughout most of the movie, but it is revealed on the sly. It becomes obvious that Bruno and Shmuel cannot escape the forces closing in on both of them. Loss of innocence and tragedy are imminent. When the day of reckoning finally arrives, it is brutal. This inevitability is a heavy burden for the audience to bear. This film is moving, but it is a real downer. It rates a C+.
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