Friday, March 13, 2009

"The Reader"

I went to see "The Reader" yesterday, expecting great things. I came away confused, disappointed and, yes, not a little angry. I was confused by the counter-intuitive historical time-line of the narrative; disappointed because I had been led by the film's wide recognition in the awards season--and by reviews--to expect something different, and better; and angry because... well, I'll get to that.

Let's start with the confusion. The little dates flashed at the bottom of the picture as time sequences changed were entirely inadequate to orient this particular viewer in the historical context. Maybe they worked for others. Not for me. The character at the center of the story, Hanna Schmitz--superbly played, I have to say, by Kate Winslett--is a woman who of her own free will, it seems, served as a guard in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The story's narrator, Michael Berg, an attorney in current time played by Ralph Fiennes, looks back with infinite sadness and regret on his seduction as a teenager by this woman, and their subsequent summer-long passionate affair--an affair that centered around Hanna's almost compulsive delight in hearing the lad read aloud to her from the classics he was studying at school.

My confusion resulted from my initial--mistaken--understanding that the affair had taken place before the war. It took a while, and a good deal of mental calculation as the movie progressed, to adjust to the realization that it must have taken place after the war. The confusion was compounded, I think, by the lack of any effort at this early juncture to establish the visual, physical, or even psychological context of the after-effects of war. (I myself lived in Germany for two years staring in 1959, and believe me those scars were everywhere apparent.) It became clear later in the film that Hanna had to have been suffering, at the time of her steamy affair, from the trauma of her wartime experience; at the time we witnessed it, though, she could simply have been a rather straight-laced, closed-in Nordic type as I supposed, and of which there are many in this world.

Okay, mea culpa, I didn't read the caption. Or I missed it. And it all worked out eventually. Hanna was born in 1922. She would have been 17 or so at the start of the war, perhaps 20 plus when she went to work at Auschwitz. Young for the job, I'd say, but there you go. Michael was 15 when the narrative begins at the time of the affair, in the late fifties, when Hanna would already have reached her middle 30s. He was a law student at the time of her arrest and trial in the late 1960s. So, yes, it does in fact work out, but only after a lot of mental arithmetic that, for me at least, proved a serious distraction.

All of which is purely technical stuff, of course--the mechanics of narrative--and could be considered a quibble, more my fault than the movie's. It was compounded, though, for me, by a much bigger, and related flaw: the film's moral obtuseness. In the scene that is the critical turning point of the plot, at Hanna's trial, along with five other camp guards, for the murder of three hundred of their charges (in the context of the much larger crime of participating in the act of genocide), Michael arrives at the sudden realization that she can neither read nor write, and her conviction for more serious responsibility than her co-defendants hangs upon her refusal to offer a sample of her writing. Rather than reveal her illiteracy, Hanna opts for the life sentence that she knows awaits her. Her former teenage lover, Michael, now a law student witnessing the trial, refrains from sharing his exculpating knowledge either with Hanna or, as would have been the simple moral imperative, with her attorney or the court.

Does he do this in order to avoid publicly humiliating her for her illiteracy? Or to assure her the worst punishment for her crimes? Michael comes off as something of a moral and emotional wimp, himself incapable of accepting responsibility in his life. Whatever his reasons, though, the film drops from this moment into an inexcusable moral abyss, suggesting that the shame for the monumental crime of the Holocaust is trumped by the shame for the educational lapse of not being able to read or write. Hanna is convicted for her participation in the former, certainly, but her punishment is for the latter.

The moral ambiguity of the court scene is compounded as the film progresses by its increasing concentration on the theme of literacy--following Michael in his guilt as he records and mails audiotapes to Hannah to relieve the misery of her prison sentence, and Hannah as she uses the recordings to teach herself, finally, to read. And the more the film becomes about literacy, the more uncomfortable I become. It's a betrayal of the six million victims of the Holocaust, as I see it, to allow that historical atrocity to become the vehicle or pretext for anything other than itself. Are we to think that Hannah's complicity--and the complicity of the vast majority of the German people at that unfortunate time in history--can be deflected into a minor personal failing of this kind?

This context aside, "The Reader" is a touching love story. It would have reached my own heart more convincingly had it addressed the effects of shame and guilt on a passionate personal relationship more directly, without deflection, and with greater honesty. I'm sure there are those who disagree with me about this movie. I'd love to hear from them.


thailandchani said...

Well, my feelings are similar to yours. I read the book a few years ago and was left with the feeling that illiteracy is no excuse for the choices Hanna made. Perhaps a different backdrop would have led me in a different direction.. but I simply couldn't abide Hanna or her moral bankruptcy.


Rev. Danny Fisher said...

I really didn't care for "The Reader" either. I agree with a lot of your observations. And, at the time I saw it, I thought Michael Phillips absolutely nailed it in his review.

PeterAtLarge said...

Chani, thanks for the observation. I did not, I'm afraid, read the book, but it certainly applies to the film, despite the great performance by Winslet.

Thanks for the referral, Danny. Phillips comes up with a substantial and insightful review. I'm glad you pointed me to it...

Nancy Youdelman said...

I had a bit of different reaction to The Reader.

To me Hanna represented the German people during the war--the "I was doing what I was told" "It was a job" and "I didn't know what was going on" referring to the holocaust. So I felt that the illiteracy of Hanna referred to the blind eye to the horror of what happened.

This film is definitely a different view on the effects of the holocaust. Hanna is arrested because a holocaust survivor has written a book about her experience and names the guards. So the literary angle again.

Another thing that I would like to mention is that during the 50s & 60s people didn't easily reveal their secrets and talk about their feelings. The film seemed to reflect that very well.

I also was a bit confused at first about whether or not it was before or after the war so it really wasn't very clear in the beginning.

But I am glad that I saw it. I thought that the actor who played the young Michael was excellent.

Mark said...

Just thought I'd drop you a line to let you know that I'm in London right now for a week! If there's anything you think I just CAN'T leave without seeing, let me know. What an amazing place!

PeterAtLarge said...

Mark, glad to hear that you've made it to my land of origin. I'm really not up-to-date with London, but I do love the parks and, from the point of view of political blather, Hyde Park Corner used to be the place for highly entertaining soap boxes! The (fairly) newly remodeled British Museum is a stunner. As for art, the National Gallery (masterpiece) and both Tate's (modern and contemporary) are de rigueur. For history, even though very touristy these days, the Tower of London will raise hairs on the neck of one who's into the history of England. A stroll through the side streets of Kensington and Knightsbridge will lead you to some charming squares and mews. And a walk along the Embankment in the Whitehall/Westminster area is also a treat. Have a great time!

Doctor Noe said...

Peter, I couldn't agree with you less ... and you know I am a child of Holocaust survivors. Ms. Youdelman has it right: the film is a good metaphor for the German peoples' mindset both before and after the war. We ought not expect from works of art to maintain the didactic or righteous positions we expect from works of polemics.

I do agree with you that the Ralph Fiennes character is a wimp and that his silence is the most frustrating thing to me. Perhaps that is what strengthened the film's affect on me.

I thought it was brilliant.

ALso, I don't believe Hannah was morally bankrupt. I believe she was a victim of fascism like anybody else. I believe she was an intellectual void trying to fill herself up. More despicable were her fellow camp guards attempting to deflect their guilt on her and save their own asses. ... and the self-righteous judge who sentenced her. Very German I think.

PeterAtLarge said...

Noe, Nancy, I hear you. I didn't miss the metaphorical suggestions. It's just that, for me, the metaphor did not quite ring true. It felt more like a literary pretext than a profound truth. Perhaps another viewing... I appreciate your thoughts.

Cardozo said...

As for Michael being a wimp, I thought the movie actually did a fairly decent of job of showing how traumatized Michael was when he learned - at the trial - that Hanna used to have the young Jewish prisoners read to her.

It would indeed be disturbing to realize you've been unwittingly re-enacting scenes from someone else's horrifying and shameful past.

That Michael could only partially forgive her for her sins and her abandonment of him, and that he was unable to bring himself to come forward with the essential evidence in Hanna's trial - to me is understandable.