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All Fenced in by Fear

November 6, 2008 By:
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Grass is greener? The fence that divides is a matter of life and death in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Photo by David Lukacs/Miramax Film Corp.

"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is no slumber party.

What it is, however, is one of the new millennium's most memorable and meaningful movies that focuses on the Holocaust, where nightmares seem the natural dream state of being and gargoyles goose-step to the tunes of the infamous Fatherland.

Indeed, "Pajamas" -- based on an award-winning novel -- may well be the sleeper hit of the season; it opens this Friday.

The film opens the heart on a topic too many cynics think has closed down; there are those, after all, who have carped that the public has been "Holocausted out" in the arts -- too much pain and suffering eked out by insufferable screenplays.

John Boyne doesn't sit on the fence about the topic; his book about Bruno, a young German boy whose father's Nazi officer position posits him on the outside looking in at a concentration camp, concentrates its tale on the barbed-wire fence that separates Bruno, and the brutal forces led by his father, and Shmuel, the emotionally shellacked child who, with his family, is interned for the eternity of hell that awaits all those encamped in what appears to be Auschwitz.

It is the sound and the Fury that Fitzgerald never imagined: a cry for help that echoes threateningly throughout the camp and the Fury -- a Freudian slip of a sobriquet given the Nazis by Bruno --frighteningly stifling their call.

It is a book about children, but to call it a children's book is to infantilize its infinite wealth of worldliness as it shows that we, indeed, do have reason to lament what man has made of men -- and, probably, even more so for the crimes committed against childlike innocence.

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to get inside the skin of a topic treated skeptically by some; and both Boyne and Mark Herman, director/screenwriter/executive producer of "Pajamas" are attired in tourist togs.

Neither is Jewish -- Boyne a Dubliner; Herman an Englishman -- but both have brushed a sheen of luster onto their sterling Stars of David treatment of history at its most heinous.

"The challenge was to tell a story to encourage a new generation of children to understand the Holocaust," says Herman, hitting on the movie's mojo.

"It is a family film in the truest form of the term; a film that deserves discussion afterward."

There will be dialogue; both author and auteur have already seen and heard much, as the film opens around the country and in the United Kingdom, where a slightly younger audience has been encouraged to see this PG-13-rated film.

Holocaust as hallucination? Did it really happen? Some youngsters greeting the film wonder themselves. One such viewer, remembers Herman, witnessed the treatment of Shmuel and other camp victims on screen and wondered: "What did they do wrong?"

Who can answer for history? It is, avows Boyne, a bone-chilling question that goes begging without response for too many. "It's almost unanswerable," he allows.

But its impact isn't lost in translation: A well-regarded author whose wide-ranging works have been released worldwide in some 35 languages -- and whose Pajamas has unbuttoned the world of the Holocaust to some 3 million readers -- Boyne translates the boys' dilemmas into a quest for rhyme and reason in a world too often devoid of them. "When they ask that, I turn the question right back on them: What do you think they did wrong?"

Right approach, as the writer has challenged the blank faces before him to read the blank verse that is his poetry-in-motion book.

The kids' responses have been an eduction for a writer whose own learning tools were sharpened at 15, "when I first started learning about the Holocaust in school. It has always been a fascinating topic to me."

Herman's hermetic seal on the subject was steamed open by an English teacher at school, "when I was 12 or 13, and he showed us this photograph" of the horrors of the Holocaust.

"That image still stays with me."

It remains to be seen what impact "Pajamas" can have on today's generation, about whom Herman is nevertheless hopeful: "They are better educated on the subject today."

In researching the topic over the three years that he and Boyne were buoyed by their brave commitment to take the topic to the screen, Herman discovered that ghosts of camps past revisit the killing fields of Germany diurnally. "The scariest part was finding out about the current neo-Nazi movements in Germany."

Which makes this film even more germane -- especially for an Irishman irked by his nation's own troubling history about The Troubles. "I grew up in the 1970s and '80s and I guess it was in my subconscious, as it would be in any Irish person's," allows Boyne.

But the Belfast blast of Catholic-Protestant protests, he protests, "was more a TV event for those of us in Dublin, so far away from the north. We never experienced it in any way."

In no way is "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" -- so named after the Nazis' fashion statement of what their "subhuman" subjects should wear in their sleepwalking lives -- a bedtime story.

What it is, agree both men, is a fable of friendship amid fear, and the familiarity of the furies that await civilization at each end of its dark corners.

And children -- whose remote concern with the Holocaust often is limited by what they can conjure up of more interest with their remote controls -- "are being sucked into the movie; it's like a refreshing change for them," says Herman.

But not one without warning. "The audience knows, from the first frame of the movie," says Herman of the inevitable, "that there will be no happy ending."

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