Caught up recentlywith the film adaptation of The Reader. The screenplay by David Hare faithfully renders – and, in key passages, enhances – Bernhard Schlink’s novel. The central performance by Kate Winslet is worthy of the Oscar, and as always Bruno Ganz is excellent as the law professor.
I read the book several years ago, and found it a difficult work about which to make a judgement: is it a profound exploration of Germany’s relationship to its past, or is it merely crass? The film has created the same doubts among critics. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw was severely critical in his review:
Everyone involved in this film is of the highest possible calibre, but their combined and formidable talents could not annul my queasiness that the question of Nazi war guilt and the death camps had been reimagined in terms of a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy. This was, I admit, a problem I had with the original novel, and the movie treatment has not alleviated it. Its full, questionable nature emerges as the narrative unfolds…
I can’t forgive this film for being so shallow and so obtuse on such a subject, and I can’t accept it as a parable for war-guilt-by-association suffered by goodish Germans of the next generation. Under the gloss of high production value, under the sheen of hardback good taste, there is something naive and glib and meretricious. It left a very strange taste in my mouth.
Peter Bradshaw is a fine film critic, but he has failed to understand Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s masterpiece, The Reader. He argues the film presents Hanna Schmitz – a concentration camp guard and war criminal – as having a “guilt-free human vulnerability”. True Hanna is presented as vulnerable; but it is no part of the film’s authorial vision that she is free of guilt. The film’s point, I think, lies in demonstrating that vulnerability can play a part in leading one – anyone, perhaps – to commit acts of barely comprehensible wickedness.
The affair between Hanna and Michael is not “glorious”; though sexually fulfilling, it is troubled and hints at disaster from the off. When Hannah silences the judge with “What would you have done?”, the judge is not silenced by her moral honesty, but is rendered speechless by horror. (Hannah’s question ends cross-examination in which she fails to see she had a moral responsibility to save 300 people locked inside a burning church.) Finally, it was, indeed, toe-curling to see Michael attempt to carry out Hanna’s wish that her money be given to Ilana, one of her victims. But this was precisely the effect that this scene was designed to elicit: to the very end Hanna has failed to appreciate the nature of her crime and Michael, in fulfilling what he takes to be his duty to her, has failed to see this too.
The Reader is, in a sense, a novel of confession. Michael admits to an entanglement with an individual from the German past and plumbs his moral entanglement, as well as Hanna’s culpability. The novel thus enacts the relationship of the postwar German generation to the reality of the Nazi era and is a continuation of efforts first made in the late 1960s, to examine the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, questions of individual and potential collective guilt, the silence maintained about the Nazi era in early postwar (West) Germany, and the attempts to devise appropriate channels for the future transmission of Holocaust memory.
“We students in the camps seminar considered ourselves radical explorers. We tore open the windows and let in the air, the wind that finally whirled away the dust that society had permitted to settle over the horrors of the past.”
This point is emphasised in a review of the film by Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews:
The film’s moral centre about facing the truths behind the country’s shameful past comes about in the centerpiece climactic scene when Michael visits in Manhattan a wealthy Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz (Lena Olin, in a dual role as both mother and daughter), who wrote a book with her now deceased mother about the camp and both women pointed an accusing finger at Hanna during her trial. The collected, articulate, and stylish woman lectures the depressed Michael, who suffers from a bad case of guilt by association and has remained silent all these years about his contact with the former Nazi guard, that the Holocaust cannot be forgotten or trivialized. This was the only scene in the film where the Holocaust lecture, mostly aimed at second generation victim survivors and those second generation Germans too afraid to admit contact with any Nazi because it might strain their current position in society, at least had a charge to it. It leaves the lingering question if those we loved can ever be forgiven for their past evil deeds or if those of other generations can ever come to terms with an older generation that so easily accepted evil.
Michael confronts the horror of whether he had loved evil. He cannot bring himself to make a final judgement: “I didn’t see myself in any of the roles I had seen lawyers play at Hanna’s trial. Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defense, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all.”
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it, as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both. (pp 155-6)
Or, as Schlink put it in an interview with a British publication: “When a judge’s hand does not tremble a little as he condemns someone, that’s pretty frightening.” Schlink argues that the novel is about “the problem of what does it mean to us [and] how do we cope with the fact that someone we love, admire [and] respect turns out to have committed an awful crime?” Speaking as a member of Germany’s “second generation” Schlink explains: “It’s an unsolvable problem – the second generation can’t just expel the parent generation from its love and solidarity.”
And yet, he says, not breaking from the guilty often means that the second generation becomes entangled in that guilt. For Schlink, the conflict came to light when he learned that one of his favorite teachers had denounced people to the Gestapo during World War II.
The question of Hanna’s illiteracy can be confused as an excuse for her crimes. What is shocking is that this secret of Hanna’s is, to her, more shameful than murder. As Guy Savage has written (Mostly Fiction Book Reviews):
When mulling over The Reader, the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s term the “banality of evil” came to mind, and the fictional Hanna’s failure to imagine the suffering she inflicted makes her, at least ultimately for me, a repulsive subject. Yet herein lies the novel’s strength: Michael loves a woman who hides the truth about the terrible crimes she committed. But then when he discovers the truth, Hanna’s lack of imagination reveals a horrifying abyss, a huge gap where morality and conscience should exist. Is such a discovery so shattering that Michael’s former love and lifelong obsession collapse? As Michael struggles to understand Hanna’s crimes, in the process, he struggles to understand the nature of evil and its indifference to suffering. And thus The Reader is not only a coming of age novel but also a novel that addresses questions of morality, accountability and culpability.
There have been a whole list of crass misinterpretations. As if I thought because Hanna Schmitz is illiterate she isn’t guilty. As if I thought you are a moral person as long as you’re educated. As if I thought that by learning to read, Hanna Schmitz had understood her guilt and cleared her character. The interesting thing is, these aren’t readers’ but critics’ misinterpretations.
This interpretation is put forward in a review of the film on World Socialist Website:
Also skewed in The Reader is its treatment of culture and what the production notes call “the deeply transformative power of words and literacy.” These are worthy issues, but, again, approached very inadequately. The film implies that if Hanna had been more cultivated early in life, she might not have become a participant in the Nazis’ crimes. While that may or may not have been the case, it was decidedly not a lack of culture, in the general sense, within the German masses that contributed to the victory of fascism. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the country’s population was one of the most cultured on the planet, having produced and been nourished on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Lessing, Schiller and Goethe, not to mention Kant, Hegel, Marx and Engels.
Though the film’s creators allude to ‘the deeply transformative power of words and literacy’, Schlink, in the novel, seems to go further, revealing that, after she had taught herself to read, Hanna read works by ‘Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery – the literature of the victims, as well as the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hannah Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature on the camps.’ Personally, I think that David Hare was right to omit this detail.
In the book Hanna, once she attains literacy and understands the situation more fully, cannot live with herself anymore. She tells Michael:
I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand. They don’t even have to have been there, but if they do, they understand even better. Here in prison they were with me a lot. They came every night, whether I wanted them to or not. Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.
Again, David Hare leaves this out of the screenplay in which Hanna’s reasons for committing suicide are left ambiguous, perhaps rightly.
I can’t recall whether this passage from the book is in the film; it’s a powerful one. On the way to Struthof concentration camp, Michael hitches a ride. The driver, on learning why Michael is visiting Struthof, responds:
‘Ah, you want to understand why people can do such terrible thins…What is it you want to understand? That people murder out of passion, or love, or hate, or for honour or revenge, that you understand? You also understand that people murder for money or power? That people murder in wars and revolutions? But the people who were murdered in the camps hadn’t done anything to the individuals who murdered them? Is that what you want to say? Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war? You’re right, there was no war and no reason for hatred. But executioners don’t hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they’re ordered to? You think they do it because they’re ordered to? And you think I’m talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey? No, I’m not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes…They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.’ (pp149-150)
It turns out that this man had been a member of the Einsatzgruppen in Russia, executing Jews.
The Reader: trailer
- The Reader (novel): Wikipedia
- The Reader: Vintage Books reading group guide
- The Reader: perceptive film review ( as usual) by Roger Ebert
- Ozu’s World Movie Reviews
- Slant Magazine: critical review
- We know how, but we still don’t know why the Germans killed the Jews: Neal Ascherson discusses (1996) the appearance of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen’s account of German participation in the Jewish Holocaust