September 19, 2008

David Sees Dark Side of Disney

By Kate Whiting

DISNEY films are usually more associated with fairytale happy endings than stories about the Holocaust.

However the company, through its subsidiary Miramax, has taken the brave step of releasing The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which deals with the horrors of a Nazi death camp as seen through a child's eyes.

The film, an adaptation of John Boyne's award-winning novel, stars British actor David Thewlis as the Nazi commandant of the camp, whose son Bruno befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

This week the number of Midland screens showing the film, which was released last week, has doubled.

"Some people see the word Disney attached to the film and think it's going to be this saccharine telling of John Boyne's story, but it's a fairly faithful adaptation of the book," says 45-year-old David. "A lot of people cry at the end because it's pretty grim but there's no other way of doing that ending and it would be terrible if somehow it was changed to be happy.

"It's very important that it's not seen as a sentimental film because it's not a sentimental subject matter."

Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield, and his family move from Berlin to a house in the country - and the eight-year-old sees what he thinks is a farm from his bedroom window.

Bored and lonely, Bruno defies his parents' wishes to stay near the house and sets off through some woods to make friends at the 'farm', where he meets Shmuel (newcomer Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy his own age.

As their friendship develops, Bruno starts learning more about the adult world but his innocent offer to help Shmuel find his father has horrific consequences.

Playing a Nazi commandant would be a daunting task for any actor, but David accepted the role the same day he received the script - partly because of its stark conclusion.

"I was sent the script to my computer and I didn't have a printer with me, so I read it on a PDF file, which made the ending all the more shocking, because I couldn't tell when I was getting to the end. I just kept pressing the scroll button, thinking 'you can't just finish the film there. Is that it? Oh God!' "But that really attracted me to it, because I thought it was very brave to make a film that had such a final ending, there's nothing more to say after that, there's no discussion to be had. It's like roll the credits and go home and think about it."

While Bruno is sneaking off to see Shmuel, his mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) realises the nearby camp is not just a work camp after a sick joke from her husband's shady right hand man Lt Kotler (Rupert Friend).

She slowly starts to unravel as she acknowledges the evil that her loving husband is capable of.

For David, it was a challenge to play someone both human and caring as a father, but also a mass murderer.

"I think it would have been harder to play him just as a monster, who's abusive to his children and rules with an iron rod. It wouldn't be such an interesting film because it's about Bruno's love for his father.

"No matter what he finds out, he cannot believe his father is capable of what's being implied, right up to the very end, he still can't accept that his father is part of this."

The actor, who won a best actor award at Cannes for his role as a rapist in 1993's Naked, dedicated himself to the role, poring over history books and documentaries about the Holocaust.

"The only way I could really get my head into playing such a character was just to try to immerse myself in the rhetoric and the imagery of the period and try to desensitise myself to it," David continues.

"So I also watched a lot of explicit footage just to try to imagine how these people were capable of it.

"I was oblivious to anything else that was going on, not reading any contemporary newspapers or present day television, just watching all that so my head was very black and white and dark."

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