Friday, February 20, 2009

The Reader (Rhoades)

“The Reader” Isn’t Really About Reading

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I remember the first time as a child I encountered an adult, an older relative, who could not read or write. It was puzzling to me, a kid immersed in books, that someone older than me did not have this skill.

That was my introduction to differences between generations, little appreciating the learning opportunities I’d had that my forbearers didn’t.

In “The Reader” – the Oscar-nominated post-Holocaust film now playing at Tropic Cinema – we meet a young German woman named Hanna Schmitz who loves books but to her shame is illiterate. That social embarrassment, combined with her part as a guard at a concentration camp, leads to trial and tragedy.

The early part of the story centers on Hanna’s illicit affair with a 15-year-old boy, a handsome young student who reads to her. Homer. Chekov. Great literature that otherwise eludes her.
The reading is almost as erotic as the sex.

After Hanna leaves the boy, he later learns that she became a guard at a Jewish detainment camp and is accused of causing 300 deaths. As a law student observing her trial, he wrestles with her doing-her-duty defense versus knowing that she could not have written the incriminating report due to her illiteracy.

His law professor explains to his students that we do not live in a moral society but a society governed by laws. The boy has a legal duty to come forward with his knowledge, but he hesitates.
What we have here is a morally complex struggle between following the law and doing what it right. In fact, it’s a moral struggle between generations.

You come to understand that the inability to read is merely a metaphor for a generation’s inability to see what it was doing. And as Hanna masters the art of reading while serving a life sentence in prison, she comes to understand the horror of her actions, sending people to their death to make room for new prisoners. Merely a matter of practicality, right?

Wrong. That is, when seen through the eyes of a new generation of Germans.
As Hanna concludes, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn't matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.”

Based on a bestselling book by German law professor Bernhard Schlink – itself an Oprah’s book club selection – the film has been nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture. Yet the book itself has been called “cultural pornography” and turning a “blind eye to evil.”
And my old Harper’s Magazine contributor Ron Rosenbaum criticized the film, noting that even if Germans like Hanna were metaphorically “illiterate” regarding the Holocaust, “they could have heard it from Hitler’s mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started. You had to be deaf, dumb, and blind, not merely illiterate....”

Sorry, Ron, but rather than argue over the fact that everyone knew of the Holocaust but turned a blind eye to it, you might instead consider the explanation found in this passage from the book: “An executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening or attacking them. They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”

In other words, he’s just doing his job.

This moral maze was brought to the screen by director Stephen Daldry under the aegis of the Weinstein brothers. Daldry has only directed three movies counting “The Reader,” but has been nominated for an Oscar on each of them. “Billy Elliot” was called “charming” and “irresistible.” “The Hours” was described as “deeply moving” and “a thing of beauty” – and won a Best Actress Academy Award for Nicole Kidman.

The actress up for kudos in “The Reader” is Kate Winslet in the role of Hanna. You see her struggle to understand her crime just as she struggles to learn to read for herself. And she ages from a lovely woman bathing her lover to an elderly inmate facing a lifetime internment.
The younger Michael is well portrayed by David Kross; his older self by Ralph Fiennes.
If Hanna represents the older (guilty) generation, then Michael gives us the new Germany, trying to understand the sins of its elders.

As Michael says, “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it ... But it was impossible to do both.”
[from Solares Hill]

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