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.