Observations on “The Reader”

April 30, 2009


I missed seeing “The Reader” during its theatrical release in 2008, otherwise I certainly would have placed it high on my list of “Best Films of 2008,”  it certainly out-classes and out-thinks some of the more basic diversionary films that settled near the bottom of that list.

“The Reader” is now out on DVD, and a viewing of it left me with all sorts of thoughts. First, on a simply film appreciatory level, it’s a wonderfully made movie with tremendous performances by the entire cast. Kate Winslet consistently proves herself to be one of the, if not THE, eminent actresses of her time. Her work in “Iris” and “Little Children” displayed that, “The Reader” solidifies it.

In narrative and artistically, “The Reader” knocks everything out of the park. I’ve never read the novel on which it’s based, yet I’m certain the allegory, subtext, nuance, philosophy and empathy that cuts through in all directions was present there, and if so it’s amazing that was brought to the screen so successfully. The visuals and many certain shots highlight the deeper meanings that come through in the words and actions of the characters so much so that this film works on so many different levels.

The film explores the after affects of the holocaust in a way I’ve never before seen displayed. The story takes place in Germany in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘80s (the ‘70s are entirely skipped) and concerns first a boy of about 15, Michael (played by David Cross as a teen and later by Ralph Fiennes as an adult), who is seduced by a thirty-something woman, Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet) . Hanna abruptly disappears from Michael’s life one day and he sees her again years later when he is a law student in as his class observes the trial of a group of SS women for war crimes. She is one of those on trial.

What this story manages to do is to remove all easy judgments the viewer might normally make on any character. Whereas noir films muddy things up by showing that there is no complete good in all and the heroes and villains alike share darkness within themselves, this film is like a reverse noir in which the emphasis is on no character being completely bad. It’s ingrained in us to feel it’s good and just to hate the Nazi’s. What other human group can be so easy and blameless for us to loathe? It’s true that there were many human monsters traipsing around in SS uniforms, it’s true that people like Hitler, Mendel and the like cause us to question their very humanity in light of their actions. But what of the rest of the country? Those that served in the army, the SS and other jobs as accomplices in the whole messy, evil affair? Those that simply felt they were “doing their job,” or “serving their country,” or merely trying to get by? Those that didn’t take the time to think about the depth and implications of their actions. Or what of those that didn’t work in any related field yet passively allowed such things to happen by not speaking up, by not acting out, by not revolting? This film shines a light on the next generation of Germans who lived knowing their parents, teachers, preachers and older friends had actively or passively allowed one of the absolute worse national crimes in history to occur.  By taking it further and juxtaposing this relationship between a young teen, who represents that next generation, and a thirty-something woman, who represents Nazi-era Germany, this entanglement is even more pronounced. Most difficult and surprisingly, Winslet portrays this woman in such a way that you begin to feel sympathy for her tremendously, yet then you question yourself for doing so. Shouldn’t these people be void of our sympathy? We’re practically trained to think so. Yet her humanness  shows
through anyway, and her protestations of “I never thought about the past” ring true. Were such a terrible ordeal to occur this day, in this country, wouldn’t many act in the same way? This doesn’t excuse the behavior, not at all, and the film never does that., it never excuses the behavior or lightens its impact.

It reminds me quite a bit of a comment theologian NT Wright made in his book “Evil and the Justice of God,”  in which he notes the fervor and ardor that people voice hatred towards pedophilia and child molesters. He writes that although such things are “admittedly stomach-churningly wrong and evil,” the extent to which that one crime is so focused on by some is to his mind a way for a society that looks the other way or justifies most other past “sins” to be vocally critical and morally superior to at least one target group. The extent to which such a thing like child molestation is horrific and wrong allows many people to justify a complete hatred on and judgment passing to others.
We feel comfortable demonizing a select few groups of people this day and age, and Nazis and child molesters are certainly guilty of things that deserve the reaction of moral repulsion. What this film manages to do is to pull back the labels and allow you to view someone underneath that label not all that removed from what some of us would be capable of in the “right”(in this case wrong) situation. Shifted from that position of moral superiority we are left to see that most of us are quite human beneath any quite possibly horrible actions we’ve committed. Interestingly, even past the Nazi issue the female lead character is still guilty of seducing a young teenage boy and then deserting him, leaving him floundering in her shadow the rest of his life to such an extent that it seems all other relationships he has are sullied. He acknowledges her ill affect on him in a conversation with a woman who had survived a concentration camp as a young girl  (played by the remarkable Lena Olin). “Yes I know she’s guilty of much worse to so many others,” he tells her looking like a large part of him still loves her even as it hates her for what she’s done to him.

Another interesting theme that arises in relation to that feeling of moral superiority we all often get is brought home by one of college age Michael’s classmates who points out the absurdity of placing a few female guards on trial for war crimes when virtually the whole country actively or inactively aided in the atrocity. He asserted that society was doing this to make themselves feel better, not to bring about justice. The law teacher insightfully pointed out that society doesn’t determine or go by morality, but by law, and the two can be on quite the opposite ends at many points.

In short summation, in addition to being an entertaining, artistic, perfectly acted, immensely watch-able and heartbreakingly tragic film, “The Reader” also prompts more intelligent consideration and thought that almost any film in recent years.


One Response to “Observations on “The Reader””

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