Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) made people uneasy; perhaps it was his determination to make a film about the Holocaust that forced out some laughs--almost unbearable, the choking feeling of laughing and weeping at the same time. It was a movie you did not so much watch as drowned in--a cinematic waterboarding. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas also tries to see that horror from an oblivious child's point of view--but it does not dare to laugh; instead, it allows the Holocaust to unfold slowly before the (German) child's eyes, an intriguing puzzle the boy never quite solves.
Along the way, however, we are given a view of the Final Solution as a family concern, both Nazi and Jewish--and, like Benigni's picture, the decision to make genocide a personal matter takes Schindler's List one step farther, away from mass extinction to the death of individuals--millions, eventually; but in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas they die one at a time, and we are asked to know them first, and to understand what it means to be one person in the midst of the twentieth century's defining moment of shame and loss. Understand that this is a movie about the worst we can do to one another--but it is touched by the hands of parents, whose love and helplessness tell us as much about the concentration camps as we can take while still reassuring ourselves we're just watching a movie.