Helen Szamuely reviews The Reader
The idea of seeing another Holocaust film did not appeal to me. I have, over the years, seen too many of them and would prefer to see films about the horrors of the Communist system (rather than yet another effort to hero-worship the mass murderer Che Guevara). Our obsession with the Holocaust without any historic understanding has been extremely harmful. One needs to go no further than the reviews of this film in numerous left-wing publications such as the Guardian, the Observer or the New York Times, all of them very sniffy about its superficiality or the notion that somehow an evil Auschwitz guard could be seen as a victim. The same publications find it quite easy to support organizations and demonstrations where slogans such as “We’ll finish what Hitler started” or simply “Kill all Jews” are acceptable.
The Holocaust has become a separate entity from totalitarianism or anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact, “The Reader” is not about the Holocaust but about generations of Germans coming to terms with it and making sense of it. There is a further theme, much loved by the great Russian novelists – of punishment and redemption. Unfortunately, neither the highly regarded and immensely popular novel nor the less well regarded film were penned by Dostoyevsky.
The central moments of this film of interlocking three parts concerns the trial of six women SS guards who are accused specifically of murdering 300 Jewish women by locking them in a church during the death march of 1944 and not unlocking the doors though it received a direct hit during a bombing raid. Mercifully, there are no comments about the wrongness of those bombing raids but there is something odd about the number of casualties. The woman who survived with her daughter insists that all died. It is an odd little moment in the trial that makes one a little uneasy about the evidence.
Michael, the main character, is now a law student. In the previous episode he had been strongly affected by an affair he had had with a woman twice his age who had insisted on him reading to her as a kind of foreplay. In the novel he reads German literary classics; in the film these have been turned into a mish-mash of world literature, ending with Chekhov’s “The lady with the little dog”. As a law student he is taken by his enigmatic professor, played by Bruno Ganz, to the trial where he discovers who his former paramour is. He, the professor and another student discuss the Holocaust and those who had implemented it, coming to no conclusion as to how they should react to it and how they should live with the knowledge of it.
The central conundrum is whether people who did evil things such as the SS guards can be viewed as human beings. Should they be helped if it is clear that some injustice is about to be perpetrated? The professor who had lived through the Nazi period thinks that they (or, to be quite precise, Hannah the woman briefly in Michael’s life) should; that ignoring injustice is perpetuating cowardice. Michael agrees but, in the end, finds it impossible to go and see Hannah and tell her that he knows her real secret: that she cannot read and write and this has propelled her to take all the various decisions of her life. His cowardice means that she is sentenced to life imprisonment while the other former guards get away with just a few years.
This adds another layer to the problem: is Hannah a victim herself? She clearly does not think so and spends much of the trial explaining earnestly to the judge why she and the others had to act the way she did. She sees nothing wrong in any of it. At one point she asks the presiding judge what he would have done and receives no answer. At the end of the film, she refuses to give Michael any comfort. When he wonders what she has learnt in prison, she says firmly “to read”. No self-pity in Hannah and her harshness is well conveyed by Kate Winslet.
The surprising part is that the presiding judge, hitherto remarkably fair and sensible, allows unsupported and clearly venomous accusations from the other ex-guards to stand with no investigation. The second part of the plot hinges on this rather improbable development. With Hannah in prison, Michael, now a successful lawyer whose personal life is cold and unsatisfactory (if films are to be believed, this is true about all successful lawyers) spends his time recording all those books he had read to her and sending the tapes. How he finds time to do his legal work, take out women with whom he finds it hard to have a loving relationship and record all those hundreds of hours of tapes is a mystery. Still, Hannah uses them to learn to read and write. She even finds out in a mysterious fashion who the man is and where he lives so she can send him a few notes to which he does not reply. In other words, the plot is out of joint.
What of the main theme? How Germans of various generations learn to live with the knowledge of the Holocaust remains unsettled but that is quite right. This is a personal matter and personal decisions have to be taken. That it remains a difficult issue is demonstrated more than adequately by the benign attitude so many people who think of it as the greatest horror ever perpetrated towards the present-day heirs of those SS guards who scream for the blood of all Jews.
The film gives no satisfaction to anyone and nor should it. But there is a kind of an acknowledgement that even the guards were human beings with their own complexities. What of redemption, preferably through suffering? Hannah does go through a hard time and though she insists that she has never thought about the past, it is clear through Winslet’s controlled acting, that there is a canker that she only half-understands eating away inside her. In the end, she acquires a kind of peace but rejects redemption.
Michael, on the other hand, remains an incomprehensible figure. Possibly this has something to do with Ralph Fiennes apparently thinking that staring moodily into middle space with eyes periodically filling with tears is a substitute for acting. His punishment is not very great but he is allowed a kind of redemption through a renewed warm relationship with his daughter to whom he eventually decides to tell the story of Hannah and himself.
This is not a great enough film; it deals with horrors and is watchable, though a tad too long. But it does not provide catharsis. For that we must go back to Dostoyevsky.