The Reader: A PeaceBang Review

[Warning: this review contains spoilers galore.]

I saw Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed film “The Reader” yesterday afternoon and was very moved by it. For my money, the movie was about the banality of evil, a la Hannah Arendt. Kate Winslet plays a former SS guard named Hanna who seduces 15-year old Michael Berg (played by David Kross and then Ralph Fiennes). Hanna hungers after two things: sex and literature. She has young Michael read to her, a task which he eagerly takes up as a prelude or postlude to love-making — and then later in the film under far more tragic circumstances.

I am surprised that no film reviews I could find made mention of the use of water as a major symbol in the film. Hanna seems to be almost as fond of bathing as she is of sex, and water with its purifying, baptismal resonances is returned to again and again throughout the narrative.

Make what you will of the film’s themes of guilt and secrets.
“The Reader” has been accused of being well-lit, star-vehicle Oscar bait that trivializes the evils of the Holocaust, but I didn’t find it to be so. It is a beautiful film about a vampiric relationship within the context of a national and individual moral abyss. Neither did I agree with the reviewer who deemed Winslet’s character “too stupid to defend herself” at a trial at which she is accused of authoring the report that essentially authorized the burning alive of 300 female Jewish prisoners in a locked church. I thought her character was not stupid, but banal. She lacked conscience, creativity and courage. She followed orders. “What would you have done?” she asks the judge, and when she does you can feel the jaws drop open in the theatre. I know that my own face pulled back into a grimace of disbelieving horror. What a thing to say, and yet so perfect for such a dead, obedient soul. It is a truly horrific moment and all the more memorable for its lack of histrionics.

Screenwriter David Hare (adapting the novel by Bernhard Schlink) gives this wonderful line (at a different point in the story) to one of the idealistic young law students who cannot morally stomach what the elders of his country did during World War II. “Everybody knew!” he cries. “The question isn’t ‘Did you know’ but ‘Why, when you knew what was happening, didn’t you kill yourself?'”

Bruno Ganz is wonderful as a law professor and young actor David Kross does an extraordinary job (I thought) of making us believe that a fresh young man could fall in love with such a shut-down, morose cypher as Winslet’s Hanna.

As for Winslet’s Oscar-winning performance, I applaud her for making Hanna absolutely ordinary rather than a more complex and charismatic villainess. Hanna’s decision to keep her illiteracy a secret rather than confess it and save herself from a life sentence in prison isn’t really interesting — it’s both pathetic and morally reprehensible, as her keeping her secret results in lighter sentences for her “more” guilty comrades. But what the hell, all the female SS officers on trial are fiends — I found that I didn’t care any more about the flummoxed Hanna’s fate than that of her more sinister co-workers. Nor did I respond with any real feeling to her suicide on the eve of her release from prison. I hope that I was not meant to. I sympathized only with Ralph Fiennes’ character — a man eternally haunted by his entanglement with this Nazi sphinx.

Did you see it? What did you think? I am still trying to figure out what the testimony about Hanna’s favoring of weaker young women (who read to her before they were dispatched to their deaths) was all about — and was the Lena Olin survivor character one of the girls who read to her? Was that supposed to be a moment, when Ralph Fiennes reveals that he, too, had been exploited by Hanna to read to, and service, her? Was that a flash of sympathy between Lena’s and Ralph’s characters? If so, it kind of went over my head.

The scenes of the camps were devastating. I didn’t find them to be less so because of their cinematographical beauty.


7 Replies to “The Reader: A PeaceBang Review”

  1. I’d be interested in hearing your view of Ron Rosenbaum’s essay on the film.

    [I could only manage to read the first frothing-at-the-mouth page because his precis of the film was so innacurate I couldn’t tolerate more than that. I’m not sure he even saw the film! Nothing in the film suggests that either Hanna or other “ordinary Germans” didn’t know what was going on during the Jewish extermination. The point of her character was that she didn’t CARE — she had no moral sensibility. The fact that she teaches herself to read wasn’t, for me, an attempt to redeem her character but to show that she was desperate to do something with her pathetic life — which she chose to end by her own hand, making her effort an empty, futile gesture. Sometimes I have to wonder if people are thinking at all once they get these particular buttons pushed. There is just so much misinformation in his analysis I couldn’t engage with it at all, and that’s a shame. – PB]

  2. I wonder if the audience’s jaws dropped open at the Reader’s
    “What would you have done?” comment partly in uncomfortable self-recognition?

    Obedience to authority and tradition is evidently hardwired into us humans, for good reasons that can go horrifically awry. That’s what I gather from this study anyway. It recently received a lot of discussion on a list I subscribe to, relating to the topic of animal processing factories and society’s support of them, but the implications go far beyond.

    Looking forward to seeing the movie. Thanks for the review!

  3. I loved the film- especially David Kross. The part I did not understand is why Michael (David Kross’ character) did not tell Hannah’s lawyer or the judge that Hannah was illiterate and could not have written the report. Michael does go to see Hannah in prison, during the trial but changes his mind and leaves the prison without seeing Hannah. Did he feel guilty about his relationship with her or what ?

    Although Kate Winslet gave a fine performance in this film, I thought she was magnificent in Revolutionary Road.

  4. Hi Alkali — I just read all of Rosenbaum’s essay and although I agree with him that there are some incredibly vile interpretations of the movie afoot, the filmmakers can’t be blamed for them. For instance, Rosenblaum writes,

    Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder! Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you’re guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it’s not shown in the film. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

    And so the film never really questions the presumption that nobody could know and thus register moral witness against mass murder while it was going on. Who could have imagined it? That’s the metaphoric thrust of the Kate Winslet character’s “illiteracy”: She’s a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to “read” the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens. To which one can only say: What a crock! Or if Hollywood has its way: Here’s your Oscar.

    Hard to believe, but it’s almost unfair to say it’s the fault of ignorant West Coast types. I witnessed a shocking moment of this sort of deferential ignorance in an audience of supposedly sophisticated New Yorkers, many of them Jewish.

    The Barnes & Noble comment (if it’s accurate – I’ll have to look* – it may be a reader comment) made me shudder. But I maintain my disagreement with Rosenbaum’s basic premise and most especially with his (and an outraged friend whom he took to a viewing of the film) treatment of Winslet’s nudity, which I read not as “Nazi porn” but as a necessary way to communicate the power this woman had over young Berg. How else was the director to convey the life-long vampiric influence this woman had over him but visual images of her erotic intensity?

    All that said, I am eminently grateful that the film version excised from the screenplay Hanna Schmitz’s reading about the Holocaust and therefore educating herself about her own complicity in its evils. If the message of the book implies that merely learning about something exonerates us of the crime of mass murder, I would definitely throw it across the room in disgust. My clear understanding was that Hanna knew exactly what was going on in the camps, she knew exactly what she was doing in selecting 10 prisoners a month to die, and she knew exactly what she was doing when she refused to let the prisoners in the burning church escape (ie, live). I never equated her illiteracy with moral naivete or ethical ignorance — it was just a fact about her; a quirk of her character that made no attempt to excuse her immorality (amorality?). For me the message was “How absolutely unbelievably horrific that this woman was more ashamed of being illiterate than she was of imprisoning and murdering Jews. And how tragic that this promising young man was forever poisoned by her presence in his life.” So. Interesting!! – PB

    *Yep — here it is in all its outrageous stupidity.

  5. Thanks for responding. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily agree with Rosenbaum’s take, but I thought it was interesting.

  6. I think the question *what would you have done?* is a good one, because it’s not the same as asking what you should have done. Really, not all that many people ever do the right thing when the choices are hard, and people do trivialise monstrous crimes when they won’t/can’t empathise with the victims. The perpetrators of crimes against humanity often are just as boring and banal and human as the rest of us.

    Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.
    Clearly it should be the she thinks it’s more shameful than murder, not that it actually is. [Bingo. – PB]

  7. I haven’t seen the film but I plan to. From my reading of your review however, I think your last comment is spot on:

    “How absolutely unbelievably horrific that this woman was more ashamed of being illiterate than she was of imprisoning and murdering Jews…”

    It’s not about illiteracy per se, but rather the banal horror of how some of us can let our subjective experience – our personal issues, like Hanna’s illiteracy – loom larger in our minds than far larger and profounder ones.

    Indeed, in some ways we all do it – genocide is taking place in the Congo right now, but who among us is pressuring our government to do something? And we’re directly implicated btw because it is largely over the cobalt that fuels the computers we blog upon… More controversially perhaps, in the light of this, how much of the recent liberal angst over Gaza was projected guilt over Iraq, or just simple posturing…?

    We humans are truly frail, and often failing. We need to live in the truth of that. I suspect the depiction of Hanna as a very ordinary person was meant to be a reflection of the dangers inherent in us all. We all like to think of ourselves as heroes, yet Hitler was voted in to power by people no different to ourselves. Mussolini was supported by the “Jewish League of Fascists”. And don’t forget the US did not enter the war until it too had been attacked: it was quite prepared to see England fall as well as France. It did not wage war on behalf of the Jews. No one did.

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