The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - Casting the characters

Adapted from John Boyne's best-selling novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a fictional story told through the eves of an eight year old boy largely shielded from the reality of World War II.

“We saw hundreds of young actors for the role of Bruno, the camp commandant’s son,” says director Mark Herman. “Asa Butterfield’s was the first tape I received and he was the third person I saw. I thought he was fantastic but we kept on searching, just because we wanted to make sure that no stone was unturned. In the end, we went back to him because the crucial thing was to find a child who can hold the screen. Asa does that. And he has just the right blend of innocence and curiosity for the role, and such compelling, watchful eyes."

“Mark helped me a lot by telling me when to do what,” says 10 year-old actor Asa Butterfield matter-of-factly. “The only thing I don’t like about making films is having to do scenes over and over again, but I guess that’s what filming is about!” Before getting the part, Asa knew something of the historical context of the story. “Some of it I already knew about,” he says. “But I didn’t know that it was called the Holocaust. I nearly cried when I read the script.”

For the casting of Shmuel, the Jewish boy on the other side of the fence, Herman says: “I saw Jack Scanlon quite late in the process of seeing hundreds of boys. Jack can be moving without being sentimental; he has a natural dignity about him. But I had to see who had the right chemistry with our Bruno before choosing an actor to play Shmuel. Having narrowed it down to about three boys, we tried different pairings with Asa. Jack and Asa played very well against one another."

Eight year-old Jack Scanlon makes his feature film debut in the role of Shmuel. His potted history of the period runs as follows, complete with a conclusion that demonstrates his perfectly accurate grasp of the injustice wrought upon the victims: “The Germans lost quite badly in the First World War to the English. So Hitler got back at them by getting all the Jews, and people who were against him and his countrymen, and putting them into these things called ‘ghettos’. Then they brought them into the camps. And Bruno thinks it’s because the Jews are the best workers. But really, Hitler just puts them there because it’s like a punishment. But really it’s not, because what have they done wrong?”

For the role of Bruno’s sister Gretel, Herman chose young actress Amber Beattie. “She was stunning in the auditions,” recalls Herman. “And, as with Asa, Amber became the yardstick for other potential Gretels to measure up to. Nobody ever did - she was ahead of the pack all the way. Amber has a plucky directness about her, and as Gretel, although she disdains Bruno and is seduced by the Hitler Youth, as the story progresses she manages to retain our sympathy.”

Young teenager Amber Beattie is part of the core audience for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She wept while reading the book and on seeing the film for the first time, and took away a simple but essential message from the story: “I think the lesson in the film is don’t judge other people, treat everyone as an equal. Because, really, everyone else is the same as you.”

Producer David Heyman was impressed with Mark Herman's rapport with his cast and in particular, appreciated his skill in communicating with its younger members. “It’s very easy to pander or to patronize,” say Heyman, “but Mark didn’t do that. He treated the kids as mature people with their own thoughts and ideas; he treated them with the respect they deserved and required and I think the children responded accordingly. I think they realized that they were doing something serious and dramatic, something that demanded effort and attention, and had worth and value. As a result, they treated the work with the same respect Mark gave to them. Mark Herman is a very compassionate director – he has a real sympathy for the characters he writes about and the actors he directs.”

American actress Vera Farmiga plays Elsa, Bruno's mother, the commandant's wife. Director Mark Herman was keen to exploit the chameleon quality that previously brought her to the attention of directors such as Martin Scorsese and Anthony Minghella: "What attracted me to Vera is her total immersion in every role she plays. She’s so different - almost unrecognizable - in every film I’ve seen her in. She turned up every morning on our set as this 1940s lady completely unrecognizable as Vera Farmiga. She has a very European look and she is a wonderful actress – she captures the moral ambiguity and brings a very particular humanity and sympathy to the role of the commandant's wife who only gradually learns of the gas chambers. I think that Vera and David lifted the film onto a different level than even I had expected.”

Vera Farmiga researched her part extensively and her interpretation of Elsa is an amalgam of all of the diaries and journals she’d read: “It’s a sort of a compilation of all of the women in the Third Reich, from Paula Hitler to Emmy Goering to Magda Goebbels to Eva Braun to Leni Riefenstahl – all of them. I also spent lots of time looking into the propaganda of motherhood, the cult of motherhood, and what that meant - what women strove to be as mothers and what their position was throughout that period of time.”

“In a sense, Elsa is the guardian of the fence; it’s her mission to hide its existence and what lies beyond it, and when Bruno discovers the fence, it’s her mission to deter him from exploring it,” says Farmiga. “There is a line of dialogue in the novel that, for me, is the key to Elsa’s character: shortly after they’ve arrived at the camp house, Bruno says, ‘I think this was a bad idea’. And his mother replies: ‘We don’t have the luxury of thinking’.”

Farmiga continues: “Elsa doesn’t think. She doesn’t think for herself, she doesn’t think deeply. She chooses to be oblivious, concerning herself only with the safety of her family and her position in society - everything else is beyond her periphery. She’s a sort of accomplice and assistant to her husband’s ideals, his desires, his morals and his ambitions. But as she starts to open her eyes to what is unfolding, as she starts to explore for herself, there is a gradual decline of tenderness, trust and respect for her husband. And eventually she stands up and says No! Eventually, she condemns what’s going on. She even tries to get her husband to see the evil that he’s responsible for. But it’s too late – in the end, I think this willful refusal to see what’s going on right under her nose and beyond the fence costs her a life. In a sense, she is the author of her child’s fate because it’s too late by the time she starts inquiring. She has intuitions; she knows that people are being horribly mistreated. But she doesn’t look; she doesn’t want to see it because seeing it would implicate her husband, and it would implicate herself.”

Farmiga believes that the film will engage and challenge today’s audience on many levels: “Elsa’s character, with her initial indifference, apathy and ignorance is crucial to the question of how so many people could have been murdered under the eyes of the world without anyone knowing about it. Because it’s happening all over the world. It could just as easily have been set in Iraq or Afghanistan or Kosovo or Darfur. This racial hatred exists. ”

David Thewlis plays Bruno’s father, the camp commandant. "I’ve always been a big fan of David’s,” says Herman. “His role is one of the trickiest in the film, because in the first half he has to come off as a loving, human father. Yet our viewers will know who this father really is. It’s a very difficult acting job, to play this normal family life. David’s fantastic in that warm side. It sort of makes you wonder about the hidden dark side of anyone who seems family-minded like him.”

“I think the difference with this script is that it’s seen from a German point of view, through the eyes of a German child. In the beginning, it looks like the part I’m playing, that of a loving father (and it’s immediately apparent what he’s really doing) might be showing some sympathy,” says David Thewlis. “The challenge is not to play a clichéd, two-dimensional evil Nazi. In my research, I came to learn that my character was very much based on fact. We do not say which camp it is in the film but it’s obviously not Auschwitz because I would then be playing Rudolf Hoess who had five children and raised them in the middle of Auschwitz, within sight of the crematoria. And it’s not Joseph Goebbels whose six children were taken down into the bunker at the very end of the war and were poisoned by Goebbels and his wife, who then killed themselves. It’s not at all unthinkable that such a story as this could happen. It’s a piece of fiction but it’s based on plausible situations. We increase the distance of our ‘film’ house from the camp but in reality, they were a matter of yards away.”

Thewlis continues: “I don’t think I’ve researched a film as much as this for years because I felt a great duty to do that. Usually, I take someone from my own life, someone I’ve met at some point and think, that person could have been like this person. How can I apply those characteristics? Whereas I’ve never met anyone who at all resembles the character I’m playing here because it’s quite unimaginable to understand how one could be a loving father – I’m sure he is a loving father - and at the same time, leave your children at breakfast, go next door – literally- and spend your day amidst these terrible, terrible, terrible atrocities. How do you get your mind set into that?”

Like Vera Farmiga, Thewlis read many personal documents written by the architects and perpetrators of the Final Solution in preparation for his role as a camp commandant: “I was given a letter that Rudolf Hoess wrote to his children just before his execution. It was lying around at home, on my kitchen table, and I had some neighbours over. I hadn’t told them what I was working on. They saw this letter lying around and started reading and when they’d finished it, they turned to me and said, ‘Oh, what a beautiful, heart-rending letter this man has written to his children! Who was he? Why was he dying? Was he sick?’ To which I replied, ‘Yeah, he was VERY sick!’ But the letter is clearly written by a man with an intense love for his children; it’s very articulate, very touching, almost poetic. Try and understand a human being – a sensitive human being – but one who’s capable of this! No way can I find it in myself to justify or forgive, obviously. But my job was to somehow find the humanity in him, and not to see all these people – as the cliché goes – just as monsters. They were human beings. And there are people out there today that are just like him.”

“To me, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is interesting on many levels,” says Thewlis. “There’s my part which is quite straight forward; then there is my wife who accepts the idea of a prison camp but slowly comes to realize that I’m actually engaged in genocide and then we see the effect that has upon our marriage. You have my daughter, Gretel, seduced by the rhetoric, the politics, The Fatherland. Her flirtation with the young soldier is almost an ideological seduction. My father is fully behind The Reich but my mother is thoroughly opposed to everything Fascism stands for and she’s very vocal about it. So within this one family, you’ve got five or six different points of view that evolve throughout the film, and then of course, you have Bruno whose point of view shifts several times during the course of the story until the very end. To see the film as a fable is to see the disintegration of the family, and hopefully, therein lies the punishment for the father’s sins.”

For the role of Lieutenant Kotler, Mark Herman chose young British actor Rupert Friend. “He’s one of those actors who can go either way,” says Herman. “He can play very gentle and very nasty. And in this role, he is very nasty. He does a fantastic and powerful job with it – he is very chilling and dangerously seductive. We understand that a girl Gretel’s age could be attracted to him and what he represents. At the same time, Rupert manages to expose Lt. Kotler’s extreme vulnerability under her father's interrogation at the dinner table.”

Lt Kotler is the catalyst for Gretel’s romance with Nazi ideology (memorably described by Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper as ‘a vast system of bestial, Nordic nonsense’) as well as the destruction of the camp commandant’s marriage. Friend describes his character as a member of the “inner circle” of the family: “It’s Kotler who betrays to the mother that what they’re doing is burning the bodies of the Jews,” he says. “And the father therefore blames Kotler for the complete disintegration of his happy family. Of course, the father is the one overseeing the atrocities but he blames Kotler because his wife didn’t know before Kotler blurted it out. It’s the end of Kotler’s career because the father sends him to the front line which was tantamount to a death sentence.”

Along with his fellow cast members, Friend devoted himself to researching his part through the study of first-hand accounts and other documents that would provide even a glimpse into the workings of the minds of the murderers: “It’s very sensitive subject matter and for that reason, it needed to be handled with great sensitivity by all parties,” he says. “My main challenge was to find a way of understanding the mind-set of the Nazi Party, to understand why somebody would follow the order to engage in genocide, blindly and without question. Amongst many things, I read a biography of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, and a wonderful memoir of a girl who lived on Hitler’s mountain. I also read about the psychology of war, and the way soldiers approach the act of killing. The terrifying thing about the people who committed these crimes is that they were human beings - they were real, thinking, breathing men. They weren’t deranged. They perhaps didn’t have the same moral compass as we do but they were by no means anything other than men. I think it’s important to see them, not in any way sympathized with, but at least given humanity so that we are reminded that we are only ever a step away from an atrocity like this at any time.”

Like John Boyne, the author of the novel, actor David Hayman who plays Pavel, the gentle inmate and kitchen helper, had visited the camp at Auschwitz: “I toured Poland with a theatre company many, many years ago and I went to Auschwitz,” he says. “It had an extraordinarily profound effect on me. They say that the birds don’t sing and the flowers don’t grow in Auschwitz. It’s not a cliché. It’s true. You come out of there and it’s like something has clung to you. You come out wanting to do something, anything to strip away the horror of what you feel. I think that every single school child on this planet should be taken to Auschwitz and told: ‘That’s man’s inhumanity to man’. That is what we are capable of and it must never be allowed to happen again.’ Unfortunately, it does happen. It is happening.”

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas will be released in UK cinemas on 12th September 2008.