If you are embarking a film about the Holocaust, it better be well acted, well researched and have something to say. As a filmmaker, you would need to have a long hard look at yourself and your intentions, if these conditions are not met.

Director Mark Herman (Little Voice), who also has a screenplay credit from John Boyles original novel, can rest easy.

Viewing the Holocaust from a Child’s perspective is perhaps not new but in this case the child is literally, on the other side of the fence. One of two children whose father is a rising Nazi SS officer, eight year old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is all wide eyed innocence as the family are whisked away from friends in Berlin, to enable his newly promoted Father, to oversee a project “crucial” to the Fatherland.

There is a portentous scene early in the film where Bruno, playing soldiers, appears like a marionette with it’s strings cut, as he is riddled with pretend bullets and falls dead to the floor.

On arrival at his new home, a gray mausoleum of a house, patrolled by SS with dogs, Bruno stares out of his bedroom window. Looking for a friend, he spies children dressed in pyjamas apparently working on a farm. Despite various warnings against doing so, he ventures into the back garden, eventually finding a route to a large electrified fence. He meets a eight year old, shaven headed, hungry boy, wearing striped pajamas and a tentative friendship starts and leads inexorably to the films conclusion.

Both Bruno and his older sister are home schooled twice a week, which involves being force fed Nazi doctrine which is readily accepted by his sister, who starts to notice the young handsome Nazi officers her father oversees. Notably Rupert Friend, who has his own secrets to hide.
Retrieving his football from the cellar, Bruno is disturbingly confronted by a mound of naked dolls his sister has discarded. Newly pigtailed, Gretel pursues the Hitler youth ideal via posters and rousing recordings. Bruno prefers adventure novels and remains apparently blissfully unaware of the horror unfolding around him.

Of course, what most people are interested in, perhaps the overriding question, is who knew what and when? Bruno’s mother played well here by Vera Farmiga knows something is not quite right but maintaining her place in society and the protection of her family are more important, than any doubts she harbours.

Anyway, nothing her husband could be doing could be that bad could it? After all, Jews are not people her husband assures her. Her subsequent deteoration both physically and mentally suggests that despite apparent cast iron denials, she always knew otherwise.

Meanwhile, her husband (Thewlis) played with cold effective detachment, is a monster dressed as a family man. His disbelieving mother, who knows and expresses too much, seeing him clothed in a SS uniform, disowns him and blames herself for encouraging him to “dress up” as a child. The scene at the dinner table where the Jewish “help” is brutally beaten (off screen) whilst dinner continues, is difficult to watch and comprehend with modern sensibilities.

But comprehend is what the film and especially Bruno, on whose performance the movie rests, demands you to do.

Butterfield is a rare find, able to convey deep emotion with his piercingly blue eyes. His scenes with the adult actors and by himself, are perhaps the most effective in the film.

The film within a film is a commissioned Nazi propaganda piece showing the camp as a wholesome placefor Jews to stay. The propaganda piece was actually re filmed for the movie but is based on reality and the real piece was used to allay fears of what was actually occurring.

Strangely, the scenes that fail to work are when both boys are on opposite each other across the fence. Both appear to speak and act as if they are straight out of BBC casting, which perhaps is understandable, when they have no adult actor to assist them. Schmuel (Scanlon) comes off worse and perhaps this is because, whilst a child can express wonder at a fantastical experience, acting in a manner suggesting awareness of unspeakable horror and sheer terror, is for an eight year old, difficult to convey.

The film does suffer in these scenes but the end result is not in doubt. The power of an SS uniform, Swastika flying freely in the background and snarling Alsatians, evoke powerful responses with audiences of any age.

Deserving of it’s place in telling and bearing witness to a story that perhaps can never be told too often. The film deliberately chooses to present the dark subject matter in a manner that perhaps even relatively young children could watch and then discuss.


The Holocaust, seen through a Naive German child’s eyes, occasionally falling somewhat awkwardly between a children’s movie and adult fare.

At turns clumsy, moving, affecting and ultimately wholly tragic, this is a movie that will make you consider your reaction to the final scenes. The movie may well stay with you afterwards, perhaps this is reason enough for this pitch black period of human history to be reminded to modern audiences again.