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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - Vera Farmiga interview

Vera Farmiga in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Interview by Rob Carnevale

VERA Farmiga talks about preparing for the role of a German mother in World War Two drama The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and how visiting Auschwitz helped with the emotions of playing one of the most frightening scenes…

Q. I imagine this must have been a harrowing role to play?
Vera Farmiga: Harrowing but exciting nonetheless because I read scripts all the time where you feel that if you take the role, you’re just contributing to this mess of the world that we’ve created. This was a vehicle for social commentary and we so rarely get that. I think we do have a profession that can be a megaphone… in these times especially. So, I needed to be a part of it.

Q. How did you protect the two boys?
Vera Farmiga: Up until the final scenes, I think the priority for David [Thewlis] and I was to really befriend them and create a sense of family. To create a sense of joy and love and playfulness. From “hello”, they were a couple of monkeys that jumped on us and we became a real family. We always kept it light-hearted on set and they actually interrupted my process quite a bit because when the camera was changed for an emotional take, they were cuddling me and stuff. It must have been a shocking role for them.

Q. Your character, the mother, embarks on a voyage of discovery in this film…
Vera Farmiga: Sure, she starts off as an accomplice to her husband’s ideals, his desires, his ambitions, needs and wants. But that was the ideology of the time. A woman’s world was her husband, then her children, her family, her home and to be beautiful. That’s how she starts off. She has a very narrow scope and she’s oblivious from the beginning. But she chooses to be oblivious. In my research, I focused on all the women of the Nazi party, but especially Frau Hoess, Rudolph Hoess’ wife. He was asked to write musings and his manifesto of sorts before he was executed. And in that he reveals a lot about his wife and the emotional stability she provided for him. And in her case, for two years she did not know because her husband was under a strict oath to keep the extermination programme a secret.

But I don’t understand how, for two years, you cannot intuit to some degree that something terribly wrong is happening. I mean, Rudolph Hoess would talk himself in the book about how he would hear the prisoner’s scream as he was trying to take his nap. And this is the same house that she lived in… it was within 2km from the camp. My character in the film prevents Bruno from crossing into the camp, but she herself doesn’t know what lies beyond it.

Ultimately, what happened with Hoess, when she overheard the conversation and confronted her husband, he managed to convince her that he only had executive clerical duties. That he actually had no part of the physical killing and she accepted that eventually and bore him another child. I think in my character’s mind, she intuits to some degree that people are being punished… but being punished and they’re doing something wrong.

Q. Were you surprised by the ending as an American actress? We’re so conditioned to American movies where everything turns out OK…
Vera Farmiga: I didn’t know Miramax was attached to it. As far as I knew, the script was coming from abroad. So, there was no trepidation. But again, I was just slain in spirit when I read it for the first time. I was bereft of words and could not speak afterwards.

Q. The scene where you’re by the fence, towards the end, how difficult was that to film?
Vera Farmiga: I had just come back from my visit to Auschwitz, which I had saved. I knew the schedule and had always intended to go but wanted to keep it as close as possible to that scene. I was scared of that scene. It was one of two I was particularly scared of – the first, where Elsa finds out and confronts her husband in the office, and then particularly in that scene you mention. So, I visited Auschwitz during the week off that I had before shooting it and everything that I felt while I was there, I choked it down, zipped it up, and then used it in the scene. I wanted to howl when I was there. But it was a very strategic thing to have done – I was at Auschwitz two days before we did that scene.

Q. What’s next for you?
Vera Farmiga: I just finished a Niki Caro film, who did Whale Rider and North Country, based on an Elizabeth Knox novel called The Vintner’s Luck. It’s a beautiful 19th Century love story. I play a French Countess who inherited a vineyard estate and hires a man to manage it, and his wife and his angel.

Read our review of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas