The Boy In The Striped Pajamas' premise sounds like an overwrought movie parody of the type that shows up at the beginning of Tropic Thunder: During World War II, the 8-year-old son of a German concentration-camp commandant makes friends with an 8-year-old Jewish prisoner in his father's camp. They play ball and checkers though the barbed wire, with the German boy (Asa Butterfield) naïvely oblivious both to his father's role in imprisoning the Jewish boy (Jack Scanlon), and to the camp's nature and purpose. It sounds ridiculous, and yet thanks to a remarkable concatenation of talent, it's horrifying rather than risible.
One key element: A talented ensemble of actors, including both kids and an adult cast that makes their stereotyped roles as real as possible. Also key: Writer-director Mark Herman, adapting John Boyne's novel, takes his time in setting the scene, beginning with the gorgeously rendered Berlin where Butterfield roams with his friends. Butterfield is aware enough of his culture's military bent that his playtime is all about pretending to be a soldier or a bomber, but the war isn't remotely real until his father (a chilling David Thewlis) is reassigned to the country, far from any other children. During the long, lonely period that follows, Butterfield's slightly older sister gets unsettlingly caught up in Nazi propaganda, and their mother (Vera Farmiga) becomes tense and fragile as she clashes with Thewlis over the nearby "farm" where the emaciated, hard-working "farmers" all wear rough, striped pajamas and live behind electrified fences. When Butterfield and Scanlon finally meet, it's no wonder the former is more interested in talking to another kid than in asking the obvious questions.
The film has any number of chances to exploit the setting and Butterfield's wide-eyed innocence, but instead, it mines a vast, eerie tension by keeping both boys in the dark. The horror isn't overwrought and obvious; it's delicately wrapped up in information that the viewers have, the children lack, and the adults are struggling to hide or ignore. The performances are similarly subtle; Thewlis is half propaganda-spewing shill, half tired dad trying to bring home the bacon, while Farmiga is achingly sad as a woman trying to be a good spouse and a good German, but discovering that means being a bad person. The premise is unquestionably strained, as Butterfield's ignorance becomes more and more unlikely, but from the striking cinematography to the nuanced characters to the refreshingly original approach to the time period, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas has enough going on that it doesn't have to pull too hard on such a slender thread.