The Reader

The Nominations:

  • Actress in a Leading Role – Kate Winslet
  • Cinematography
  • Director – Stephen Daldry
  • Motion Picture
  • Adapted Screenplay – David Hare

The Black-and-White:

A review by LadyOscar23

I watched The Reader knowing only its name, that it starred Kate Winslet, and that it had something to do with Nazis. While neither of the film’s two hidden secrets come as a huge surprise when they are revealed, it’s probably best not to know them in advance. Unfortunately, any review that doesn’t acknowledge them is reduced to serious vagueness.

“This film deals with whether people who did terrible things in World War II can or should ever be forgiven, the fact that even just ordinarily screwed-up humans have the capacity to do terrible things, and the fact that people’s motivations to do those terrible things can be more unexpected, random and petty that one might like to believe.”

Here’s the suitably vague synopsis from oscar.com, below which I will commence with the spoilers:

In late 1950s Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg begins an affair with Hanna, a woman in her mid-thirties. Hanna’s past contains a dark secret, however, the revelation of which, in the decades following the period of his first experience with love, will both shock Michael and force him to confront his country’s history.

OK, enough of that. From here on in I will assume everyone knows that Kate Winslet is Hanna Schmitz, a concentration camp guard whose other, apparently even more terrible, secret is that she is illiterate. In postwar Germany she encounters and seduces Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy, and has him read to her. Later, in law school, he sees her on trial with five other female guards who accuse her of being in charge during a particularly horrible incident in which concentration camp inmates were left locked in a church while they burned to death. They know that she will not refute their charges because that would mean admitting that she had not (and could not have) written the report on the subject. Peter doesn’t come forward with the truth, and she is sentenced to life in prison, where he sends her recordings of himself reading books aloud. She eventually teaches herself to read, but when she is released she hangs herself and leaves Michael a letter telling him to give the money she has saved to the daughter of one of the church burning victims.

I’m still not sure what to think of this film. My reactions to it are probably colored by the fact that reading has always been extremely important to me. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, and throughout my childhood I always carried a stack of books to armor myself against loneliness, fear, and pain (not to mention boredom). Even today I keep an emergency stack of books in my desk. To be unable to read has always seemed to me an unimaginable horror.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews criticizing The Reader for being insufficiently anti-Holocaust, but I think it’s more that it almost aggressively refuses to tell the viewer how to feel about anything—Hanna’s war crimes and seduction of a fifteen-year-old, her co-defendants choosing her as a scapegoat, Michael’s failure to come forward with the truth, Hanna’s suicide. One reviewer complained that the film “asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer”. Maybe that reviewer was distracted by Kate Winslet’s frequent nudity, because to me the movie actually went out of its way to make Hanna difficult to relate to. Why is she so terrified that someone will realize she can’t read? Obviously there is a stigma surrounding illiteracy, and the fact that Hanna would suddenly quit her job and move (or even quit her job and sign up for the SS) out of fear that a job promotion would expose her seems plausible. But surely most people would admit to things far more shameful than illiteracy before they would serve sixteen extra years in prison. Also, while I guess their affair was supposed to look like some sort of romantic soft-focus memory of boyhood (at least, that’s a complaint I’ve seen) if one looks away from the nudity it seems more like a series of squalid trysts in a squalid apartment. It drove home to me what a sad sort of life Hanna is confined to by her illiteracy.

Left to my own devices, my take on things is that Hanna is a very rigid, proud person who has a fifteen-year-old lover because he is someone she can see completely on her own terms, remaining always in control. She leaves people locked in a burning church not so much because she was “following orders” as because by her set of ethics she must do her job correctly, whatever it may be. This is borne out by the fact that she avoids the promotions she fears by running away, rather than by simply doing her job sloppily. Michael clearly believed that she did not feel anything for the people she killed, but perhaps it is more that her personal feelings must of course be subordinate to the overriding importance of following the rules and doing one’s job properly. Did experiencing literature broaden her horizons sufficiently that she realized that was not the only way to think, and that was why in the end she chose to take responsibility by comitting suicide? Or was it just that she realized that she was unequipped to deal with that world of broader horizons? I don’t know, and the movie isn’t saying.

I do think to demand that all Nazi war criminals be presented as totally inhuman monsters, psychopaths with whom we could never empathize, is wrong and dangerous. Surely some of them were psychopaths, but given the numbers involved the majority cannot have been. Anyone who doubts the capacity of ordinary people to do awful things in the right atmosphere should try looking up the Stanford Prison Experiment, or considering how much the average junior high school resembles Lord of the Flies.

I don’t think The Reader is in any way this year’s best picture, and I guess one was supposed to see her illiteracy as some sort of allegory of German ignorance which apparently went right over my head. However, I have to give it credit for the fact that its refusal to give me direct answers made me think (even if I wasn’t necessarily thinking what the film’s makers intended), rather than just making me annoyed.

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One Response to The Reader

  1. […] New review for Best Picture nominee, “The Reader” (and video of the trailer). Thanks […]

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