The Reader: Reading History Through a Provocative LensBy Frederik Sisa @ 9:00 AM January 30, 2009
Movies about World War II and the Holocaust tend to tack in one of several familiar directions – the somber “we shall never forget” elegy, the flower of hope from the ashes of horror tale of overcoming, the exploitative thriller with Nazis providing a ready shorthand for evil. (Here’s a fun storytelling trick: add an extra splash of evil to an archetypal villain by adding a “Nazi” prefix. If your zombies are too tame, make them Nazi zombies. Lycanthropes lacking bite? SS Werewolves! Scientist not mad enough? Nazi doctors!) But “The Reader,” based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, begins by assuming that we are already properly filled with historical acumen and moral outrage then shakes preconceived notions of responsibility, guilt and justice by deploying Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil filtered through the Stanford Prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s experiment in obedience. No heavy hand of history here; this is strictly character study material, beautifully delivered by director Stephen Daldry from a marvelously literate script by David Hare.
Kate Winslet rightly deserves Oscar recognition for performing Hanna Schmitz as a character who evokes a turbulent mix of often contradictory emotions. Sympathy and merciless judgment, fascination and repulsion – the complexity of the human condition is such that it’s only easy to settle for one reaction when, like jurors in a courtroom, we only have limited information. But of course our information, as viewers, isn’t limited. While Schmitz retains the mystery and ambiguity that comes with what is known in philosophy as the problem of other minds (i.e. whether they exist or not), an ironic problem in a fictional work performed by actors, the front-and-center subject of the film, along with our privileged position as viewers, provides a frame of reference with which to pick apart her character. That window is Michael Berg, played as an intense, sensitive youth by David Cross and by Ralph Fiennes as an older, spectral, hollowed-out adult. The relationship established between Berg and Schmitz, a sexually intense statutory rape, is certainly revealing of Schmitz’s damaged morality – not so much malevolent intent (or is it?), but a lack of critical thinking that plays into the broader issues of Holocaust responsibility and guilt. It also establishes the uncertainty, doubt and struggle to understand experienced by Michael Berg, whose entire life is disrupted by his affair with Schmitz.
It's Never Black and White
The New York Times’ Mahnola Dargis (http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/12/10/movies/10read.html) sees the film as asking us to “pity a death-camp guard.” She writes,” You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: It’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.”
Yet this is precisely the sort of black-and-white reduction that “The Reader” tries to avoid, shunting aside the obvious howl of condemnation that, while entirely justified, is also insufficient. Not so much the black-and-white of the act itself, which is unquestionably evil and never downplayed or denied, but in the psychology underlying the act. The unexamined life, the axiom goes, is not worth living; this holds true for the bad as well as the good. As we attempt to make sense of evil in the world, the tendency is to go the route of a “Silence of the Lambs” or “CSI” and dismiss the monstrous and the criminal as either mere pathology or metaphysics. “The Reader” offers a more provocative challenge to viewers through the moral choices made by both Schmitz and Berg, and, ultimately, through the unsettling notion that evil may not spring fully-formed from a depraved psyche, but can arise organically through ordinary human foibles.
Entertainment Value: ** (out of two)
Technical Quality: ** (out of two)
Gold Star Recommended!
The Reader. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink. Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Cross and Bruno Ganz. 123 minutes. Rated R (for some scenes of sexuality and nudity).
Frédérik invites you to discuss this movie and other movies at his blog (frederik-sisa.blogspot.com).