Intrada has just released the CD premiere of the music James Horner composed for The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, written and directed by Mark Herman (Brassed Off). Much like Intrada’s Living In The Age Of Airplanes released just two weeks ago, this new album is the exact same presentation assembled by James Horner himself and made available as a digital download in 2008. (A promotional CD-R was also produced at the time, making the score eligible for Academy Award recognition.)
Based on the youth novel by the Irish writer John Boyne, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas tells the story of a German family which move from a comfortable life in World War II Berlin to Poland, where the father, a Nazi officer, turns out to be the commander of the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz… What makes the movie so successful is that it is told entirely through the eyes of the eight-year old protagonist Bruno, whose innocence is carried by James Horner’s sparse and delicate music. As the family disintegrates around him, at first following an incident with a Jewish doctor who is reduced to the position of house slave and later as the immense tragedy of the place takes hold, Bruno becomes friends with Schmuel, a young Jewish boy his own age who lends the film its title and who lives on the wrong side of the barbed fences. The two boys rise above their opposite conditons as only children can and become close friends in spite of the fence that separates them. Bruno, ignorant at first, slowly realizes Schmuel’s predicament and the horrible fate that awaits him, without ever comprehending the full scope of the horror that the place represents… until the story’s devastating finale.
When James Horner signed on to The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, it was widely expected he would deliver a noble and touching score. While he understandably (and appropriately) tapped into the vibe of Swing Kids, James Horner wisely decided to let the context take care of itself and instead focused his contribution, as usual, on the plight of the protagonist. In fact, Horner became Bruno, centering the score around a theme full of the youthful passion for airplanes he and his friends mimick on their way back from school, arms wide, like in the montage sequence that gets the film started. After a few introductory measures for synthesizers expressing some as yet unfocused tension, Boys Playing Airplanes presents the score’s superb main theme, the piano line (performed by the composer himself) bathed in lush strings punctuated by a clarinet that appears on a shot of the Jewish ghetto. The theme does a great job telling us how young Bruno views his world.
Once the family have settled into their new Polish home, Bruno sneaks off into the surrounding woods, even though his parents have explicitly forbidden this. As any kid would, he plays with sticks and walks around in the sun. In Exploring The Forest, James Horner takes the opportunity to reflect the kaleidoscope of colors and shafts of light seeping through the trees. The cue is reminiscent of other Horner scores, like A Beautiful Mind, which also featured an attempt to mimick the effect of light being reflected endlessly and to translate the outside light into musical colors. Horner ends with a whisper as Bruno stumbles upon the camp and the « farmers », as he calls them, in their strange costumes.
The album’s third cue, The Train Ride to a New Home, plays under a scene that takes place before Exploring the Forest and which sees the family taking the train to Poland. Dissonant synthesizers are followed by another piano statement of the main theme (which is probably why Horner chose to present this cue first).
In The Winds Gently Blow Through The Garden, Horner displays considerably darker material, evocative of the horror that is beginning to dawn on Bruno and his mother. Largely scored for piano surrounded by strings, the six-minute cue is tinged with pathos but never sentiment.
For An Odd Discovery Beyond the Trees, the discovery being the camp as seen from the house, Horner brings in a woman’s voice and the electronic sound he so often used to evoke the wind over piano accompaniment.
Bruno’s older sister falls in love with a young Nazi officer who answers to her dad. She throws away her dolls and slaps Nazi propaganda posters on her bedroom walls. When Bruno goes snooping around in the basement, he finds the dolls, naked and stacked in untidy heaps, their fleshy plastic color an eerie echo of the amassed corpses of the gassed Auschwitz victims that the film never shows. The dolls remind the audience of the many photographs and the harrowing video footage that have survived the war. Horner scores Dolls Aren’t for Big Girls, Propaganda is… with the previous cue’s female voice, but relies more heavily on the strings than on the piano. The result is a feeling of mounting tension and anguish as the wheels of fate have been set in motion.
In Black Smoke, Horner uses the main theme on a bed of dissonant strings and a second piano line that is more discomforting, accompanied again by female voice, as Bruno’s mother realizes that the foul stench of the black smoke emanating from the Auschwitz chimneys is in fact the smell of bodies being cremated.
Up until this point, the father has done his best to maintain a semblance of normalcy. A rapid succession of events now reveals his true face: he decides to send his aide de camp to the Russian front and meets with Nazi dignitaries urging him to step up the camp’s capacity to exterminate Jews. All this is covered by Evening Supper / A Family Slowly Crumbles, an eight-minute cue that starts off as an adagio for strings, segues into a stark and slow piano statement of the main theme before returning to strings and voice.
The family are informed that Bruno’s grandmother on his father’s side has died and it’s back to Berlin for the funeral. Unlike her son, Bruno’s grandmother loathed the Nazi ideals. The Funeral opens appropriately with a trumpet intoning the four-note motif of doom on a bed of strings, as Bruno’s mother and father get into a fight at the cemetery. Seeing a personal hand-written note from the Führer on the casket, mother is outraged as she knows this is definitely not what her mother-in-law would have wanted. Father points out to his wife how dangerous it would be for the both of them to turn down the hommage, and here, Horner ends the cue with another quote of the four-note motif.
The Boys’ Plans, From Night to Day plays under Bruno and Schmuel hatching a plan for the two of them to meet on Schmuel’s side of the fence, because Schmuel’s dad is nowhere to be found in the camp and Bruno wants to help his friend track him down. Bruno wonders if Schmuel could scare up a pair of striped pajamas allowing him to move around unnoticed inside the camp. Convinced that their plan will work, the two boys set to work. It is this very hopeful conviction that Horner latches onto in this luminous, almost joyous cue. It also helps (or not, as the case will be) that Bruno has previously caught glimpses of his father’s propganada films painting a bucolic portrait of life inside the camps. The young boy took the movies at face value, convinced that he was moving into some kind of holiday resort…
Whereas the album’s first ten cues helped establish an atmosphere of brooding tension relieved by just a few moments of light, the impact of the two final cues is quite simply shattering, the tension and the tragedy growing slowly and implacably over the course of ten harrowing minutes. Strange New Clothes slowly takes us to the unspeakable. Strings, woodwinds and the piano perform shades of the main theme as the two boys start their search inside the camp. Recognizing the barracks he saw in the propaganda reels, Bruno repeatedly slows down, realizing how different the glorified fiction is from the sordid reality. The music goes into a state of suspension when Bruno meets the first prisoners. Much to his bewilderment, the prisoners hardly have any flesh on their bones, and they are so exhausted they can hardly move. It’s a world away from the happy football games in the propaganda reels. At the same time, mother realizes Bruno has gone missing. An open window tells her he has sneaked off to the camp. She alerts her husband and her daughter, and the three of them go looking for Bruno. However, Bruno and Schmuel are trapped inside a group of prisoners who are suddenly corralled and ordered forward. The terrorized mob is escorted through the camp and into another building, where they are ordered to take off their clothes. Some of them cry, others tell them not to worry. When Bruno’s parents find their son’s clothes left by the fence, father realizes what is going on and storms into the camp with his soldiers. The two boys hold hands as the lights go out. Bruno lifts his eyes to an opening in the ceiling, from which the lethal gas starts pouring into the room. Horner’s anguished strings give out one last howl as the dying victims thump against the gas chamber’s door and then stop. This lengthy cue, subtle at first but building to unspeakable and unbearable horror, is surely one of the most intense the composer ever wrote.
The film ends with the bolted doors of the gas chamber as Horner starts Remembrance, Remembrance, the end title cue. A brief return to the strings gives way to the score’s most extensive treatment of the main theme as performed by Horner himself on solo piano. It’s almost as if Bruno himself was reflecting on the events that have taken place. You will no doubt find that Bruno’s gaze and the end title cue are very hard to shake off.
Almost ten years after the film’s release, and thanks to Intrada Records, the CD album of The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a welcome opportunity to rediscover one of James Horner’s most poignant scores.
1/ Boys Playing Airplanes (4:13)
2/ Exploring the Forest (2:36)
3/ The Train to a New Home (3:33)
4/ The Wind Gently Blows Through the Garden (5:56)
5/ An Odd Discovery Beyond the Trees (2:51)
6/ Dolls Aren’t for Big Girls, Propaganda is… (3:42)
7/ Black Smoke (1:42)
8/ Evening Supper/A Family Slowly Crumbles (7:52)
9/ The Funeral (1:53)
10/ The Boys’ Plans/From Night to Day (2:36)
11/ Strange New Clothes (9:52)
12/ Remembrance, Remembrance (5:30)
Total Time= 52:22
Special thanks to Roger Feigelson
Translation by


  1. I saw this movie in my 7th grade year and at the time, had no idea he wrote the music for it. I remember at the BAFTA awards the year following his passing, they used his music for the in memoriam segment and Remembrance, Remembrance was one of the cues that was used in it. This movie has a special place in my heart.

    1. I think a lot of people would love to hear James Horner’s Romeo and Juliet. I’m sure the music was amazing.

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