The Holocaust drama explores the horror of a World War II Nazi extermination camp through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys; Bruno (Butterfield), the son of the camp's Nazi commandant, and Shmuel (Scanlon), a Jewish inmate.
The film opens with the quote "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows." by John Betjeman. A young boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) lives with his family in Berlin, in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. He learns that his father Ralf (David Thewlis) has been promoted, due to which their family, including Bruno's mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) and sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), relocate to the countryside. Bruno hates his new home as there is no one to play with and very little to explore. After commenting that he has spotted people working on what he thinks is a farm in the distance, he is also forbidden from playing in the back garden.
Bruno and Gretel get a private tutor, Herr Liszt (Jim Norton), who pushes an agenda of antisemitism and nationalist propaganda. As a result, Gretel becomes extremely fanatical in her support for the Third Reich, to the point of covering her bedroom wall with Nazi propaganda posters. Bruno is confused as the Jews he has seen, in particular the family's Jewish servant Pavel (David Hayman), do not resemble the caricatures in Liszt's teachings.
One day, Bruno disobeys his parents and sneaks off into the woods, eventually arriving at an electric barbed wire fence surrounding a camp. He befriends a boy his own age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). The pair's lack of knowledge on the true nature of the camp is revealed: Bruno thinks that the striped uniforms that Shmuel, Pavel, and the other prisoners wear are pyjamas and Shmuel believes his grandparents died from an illness during their journey to the camp. Bruno starts meeting Shmuel regularly, sneaking him food and playing board games with him. He eventually learns that Shmuel is a Jew and was brought to the camp with his father and mother.
One day, Elsa discovers the reality of Ralf's assignment after Lieutenant Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend) lets slip that the black smoke coming from the camp's chimneys is due to the burning corpses of Jews. She confronts Ralf, disgusted and heartbroken. At dinner that night, Kotler admits that his father had left his family and moved to Switzerland. Upon hearing this, Ralf tells Kotler that he should have informed the authorities of his father's disagreement with the current political regime as it was his duty. The embarrassed Kotler then gets infuriated with Pavel for accidentally spilling a glass of wine and violently beats him up, presumably killing him. The next morning the maid, Maria (Cara Horgan), is seen scrubbing the blood stains.
Later that day, Bruno sees Shmuel working in his home. Shmuel is there to clean wine glasses because they needed someone with small hands to do it. Bruno offers him some cake and willingly Shmuel accepts it. Unfortunately, Kotler happens to walk into the room where Bruno and Shmuel are socialising. Kotler is furious and yells at Shmuel for talking to Bruno. In the midst of his scolding, Kotler notices Shmuel chewing the food Bruno gave him. When Kotler asks Shmuel where he got the food, he says Bruno offered the cake, but Bruno, fearful of Kotler, denies this. Believing Bruno, Kotler tells Shmuel that they will have a "little chat" later. Distraught, Bruno goes to apologise to Shmuel, but finds him gone. Every day, Bruno returns to the same spot by the camp but does not see Shmuel. Eventually, Shmuel reappears behind the fence, sporting a black eye. Bruno apologises and Shmuel forgives him, renewing the friendship.
After the funeral of his mother, who was killed in Berlin by an enemy bombing, Ralf tells Bruno and Gretel that their mother suggests that they go to live with a relative because it isn't safe there. Their mother suggests this because she doesn't want her children living with their murderous father. Shmuel has problems of his own; his father has gone missing after those with whom he participated in a march did not return to the camp. Bruno decides to redeem himself by helping Shmuel find his father. The next day, Bruno, who is due to leave that afternoon, dons a striped prisoners' outfit and a cap to cover his unshaven hair, and digs under the fence to join Shmuel in the search. Bruno soon discovers the true nature of the camp after seeing the many sick and weak-looking Jews, much to his shock. While searching, the boys are taken on a march with other inmates by Sonderkommandos.
At the house, Gretel and Elsa discover Bruno's disappearance. After they discover the open window he went through Elsa bursts into Ralf's meeting to alert him that Bruno is missing. Ralf and his men mount a search. Led by a dog tracking Bruno's scent they find his discarded clothing outside the fence. Elsa and Gretel are following along behind. They enter the camp, looking for him; Bruno, Shmuel and the other inmates are stopped inside a changing room and are told to remove their clothes for a "shower". They are packed into a gas chamber, where Bruno and Shmuel hold each other's hands. A Schutzstaffel soldier pours some Zyklon B pellets inside, and the prisoners start panicking, yelling and banging on the metal door. When Ralf realises that a gassing is taking place, he cries out his son's name, and Elsa and Gretel fall to their knees in despair and mourn Bruno. The film ends by showing the closed door of the now-silent gas chamber, indicating that all prisoners, including Bruno and Shmuel, are dead.Asa Butterfield as Bruno
Jack Scanlon as Shmuel, a young Jew sent to a camp
Vera Farmiga as Elsa, Bruno's mother
David Thewlis as Ralf, Bruno's father
Amber Beattie as Gretel, Bruno's older sister
Rupert Friend as Lieutenant Kurt Kotler
David Hayman as Pavel
Sheila Hancock as Natalie, Bruno's grandmother
Richard Johnson as Matthias, Bruno's grandfather
Cara Horgan as Maria
Jim Norton as Herr Liszt
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a 63% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 135 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "A touching and haunting family film that deals with the Holocaust in an arresting and unusual manner, and packs a brutal final punch of a twist." On Metacritic, the film has a normalized score of 55 out of 100, based on 28 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
James Christopher, of The Times, referred to the film as "a hugely affecting film. Important, too." Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times said the film "trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked [the Holocaust] for a tragedy about a Nazi family."
Some critics have criticised the premise of the book and subsequent film. Reviewing the original book, Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote: "Note to the reader: There were no 9-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz – the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work." Rabbi Blech affirmed the opinion of a Holocaust survivor friend that the book is "not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation." Blech acknowledges the objection that a "fable" need not be factually accurate; he counters that the book trivialises the conditions in and around the death camps and perpetuates the "myth that those not directly involved can claim innocence," and thus undermines its moral authority. Students who read it, he warns, may believe the camps "weren't that bad" if a boy could conduct a clandestine friendship with a Jewish captive of the same age, unaware of "the constant presence of death."
Kathryn Hughes, whilst agreeing about the implausibility of the plot, argues that "Bruno's innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses." In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert says the film is not a reconstruction of Germany during the war, but is "about a value system that survives like a virus."