Film review: The Reader (2008)

Be warned: I am in the minority here. This film was well received, and in particular it earned Kate Winslet an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Actress. So when I saw it on the movie menu of my flight to the HNS Conference last June, I decided to go for it.

The Reader poster

The Reader poster

The storyline is simple, though made unnecessarily confusing by repeated flashbacks and flash forwards, the detail of which would be too tiresome to recount here. In 1950s West Germany, teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirty-something tramway conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet).

A torrid affair ensues, and the protagonists’ sex ritual includes Micheal reading the classics to Hanna in a bathtub. Michael’s hormone-addled brain malfunctions to the point where he fails to notice that Hanna cannot read a menu during an outing to the countryside. Then she abruptly skips town and breaks off the relationship without any explanation after receiving a promotion to a clerical job.

Flash forward: Michael is now a law student and attends the trial of several women accused, among sundry atrocities, of burning 300 Jews to death in a church. And, lo and behold, here’s Hanna sitting in the dock! She testifies in her defense (no 5th Amendment in Germany) and does not deny the charges. She was doing her job as a guard at Auschwitz, that’s it. She also admits to writing a report on the events on behalf of her fellow guards.

This is the time when Michael belatedly realizes that Hanna is illiterate, hence her fondness for the post-coital reading sessions. He wishes she defended herself against the – false – charge of writing the report, but no, she is apparently too ashamed of her illiteracy to deny that. Note, though, that she is not ashamed of admitting to burning the Jews to death. Everyone has her priorites, I suppose. Hanna receives a life sentence, harsher than those of her former Auschwitz colleagues.

New flash forward: Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, records tapes of the books he used to read to Hanna, and sends them to her in jail. He never seems to reach fulfillment in his life, and moves from a desultory relationship to another. He remains forever haunted by Hanna. But something happens to her in jail: she teaches herself to read and write.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

So why did I find the film so disturbing? I believe my unease was due to the character of Hanna. In the trial scenes she displays a profound moral and emotional imbecility.  She explains why she became a concentration camp guard: not out of enthusiasm for Nazi ideology, or hate of the Jews. No, she needed a job, she applied, she was hired, she performed to the best of abilities. End of story. If anything, one has to grant her an excellent work ethic.

To her, being a tram conductor or burning people to death is one and the same: a job. Some say evil is the failure of empathy. In this sense, Hanna is evil. The only character in the film who seems to perceive this is the presiding judge at her trial, when he states, during the sentencing, that she belongs in a class of her own.

My next cause for puzzlement was Michael’s reaction to this. At least he is, unlike Hanna, appalled by the Holocaust. But he fails to identify the extent of Hanna’s guilt. Who cares if she wrote the report or not? Wasn’t killing the Jews the real issue here? About remorse? She expresses none. She does not appear to feel any either. Michael is apparently still in thrall to Hanna, because he is blinded to all of this. When Thelma Adams sees him as the victim of child abuse, she makes a very good point. Michael did not, and will never recover from his early liaison with Hanna.

But the film does not see it that way. It urges us to pity Hanna. Imagine that: you lock a measly 300 people to in a church, and set the whole thing on fire, and you get a life sentence! This is so unfair. There I balked. All right, she is illiterate, but It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to comprehend that slaughtering innocents is wrong. The film’s illiteracy-as-an-excuse theory is nothing more than a twinkie defense.

Worse, is that supposed to be a metaphor for Nazism in general? I hope not, because the vast majority of those who committed war crimes, or crimes against humanity during World War II, were perfectly literate. Some were even highly educated. No wonder: the Nazi machine was based on meticulous organization and record keeping.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

As for Hanna becoming literate in jail, certainly it is a commendable step, but does she use those years to reflect on what landed her there? Reading the Odyssey is no substitute for growing a conscience. Where is the awakening? If it does happen, it is not shown. It might indirectly be inferred from the provisions of her will, but something explicit, wrenching would have been called for. Hanna never reaches redemption, and her last act is yet another negation of life, of hope.

The real tragedy here, contrary to what the film tries very hard to make us believe, is not Hanna’s illiteracy, it is Nazism, with its cortege of horrors, and her participation in that. But her deeds, such as selecting the women who were going to the gas chambers “because there were too many prisoners,” as she earnestly explains at trial, or the burning of 300 fellow human beings, are not shown. The Holocaust is not denied, it is politely swept under the carpet. The most shocking shot in the entire film is a close-up of “old” Hanna’s deformed feet.

Of course I was left to wonder how on earth this film could have garnered so many nominations and awards. My only guess is that the Academy loves it whenever glamorous actresses such as Ms. Winslet, or Charlize Theron in the 2003 Monster, subject themselves to the indignities of “ugly” make-up. But even that failed to convince: Hanna in her prison uniform was more Halloweenish than moving.

A work of fiction, in film or otherwise, may take liberties with history, but it has to be honest about it. In this regard, Inglourious Basterds was not objectionable because it made it clear that the story it told was not, and could not be true. Likewise, when Mel Brooks directed The History of the World, Part I, no one complained that his depiction of the French Revolution did not hold up to scholarly scrutiny.

The Reader, on the contrary, is dead serious. Ron Rosenbaum, in his review for Slate, used the term “fraudulent.” I agree.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

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