THE READER has been out for over a month now, so I presume it’s safe to talk about it without it “ruining” it for everybody else. It’s one of those movies that in order to talk about it with any depth, you need to raise and discuss crucial plot developments that might be better left unrevealed to first-time viewers. So, please consider this entire column a “SPOILER ALERT.”
THE READER was the big surprise the day the Academy Award nominations were announced, winning nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Aside from Kate Winslet’s bravura performance, the film hadn’t been garnering a lot of love this awards season, so the Oscar attention raised a few eyebrows. One of the prevailing suspicions is that Academy voters have an inordinate interest in all things Holocaust-related, but then why didn’t DEFIANCE score better with the Oscar voters too? With its British roots (Director Stephen Daldry is English and Winslet Australian),THE READER may have captured a rare coalition – Jewish and Anglophile voters.
But whatever the reason for its Oscar success, THE READER certainly merits serious critical consideration. Based on an award-winning German novel, this movie grapples with issues of great moral complexity and is anchored by an astonishing performance from Kate Winslet. But for all its thematic and dramatic heft, THE READER turns on an implausability that I can’t quite get past.
But first, let’s look at that moral complexity. A few years after a torrid love affair as a 15-year-old with a 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), Michael Berg (David Kross) finds himself in law school studying Karl Jasper’s THE QUESTION OF GERMAN GUILT. His prof points out that while there were 8,000 guards at Auschwitz, only 19 were ever convicted, and only 6 of them of murder. Can this be justice? Is this selective prosecution or random, arbitrary prosecution? Societies, the prof points out, think they’re grounded in morality whereas in reality they’re grounded in law. If, as one student points out, every German “knew” what was happening to the Jews during the war, is the prosecution of a handful of the guards anything more than a diversion? It may be that all Germans are “morally” responsible for the crimes of World War Two, but it’s the guards on trial who are being made “legally” responsible.
These issues become much more personal to Michael when Hanna becomes one of those on trial. Initially horrified at Hanna’s Nazi past, Michael struggles with his own obligation to reveal some exculpatory evidence that would significantly mitigate her punishment. His law prof tells him he has a moral obligation to the court and to Hanna to reveal what he knows but he feels a competing obligation to Hanna to preserve her secret. In the end he keeps his (and her) secret to himself, consequences be damned. Those consequences end up being a lifetime in prison for Hanna and a lifelong inability to relate to others for Michael. It’s never explained why Michael decides to clam up but his own shame in the affair clearly plays a role. Telling the truth would force him to reveal his own embarrassing involvement with a Nazi guard, and, given his own conflicted emotions about the matter, his decision to keep quiet at least makes some sense.
What makes less sense are Hanna’s actions. We are asked to believe that a woman would rather be dubbed a “Nazi whore” and given a life sentence than admit she can’t read or write. I just don’t buy it. Now I’m not trying to minimize the sense of shame one might feel over being illiterate, but this really strains credulity. As a result, her decision comes off more as a cheap literary device rather than as a true character-revealing action. And since the entire movie turns on this one crucial act, it’s not easily discounted as a minor flaw.
Interestingly, Hanna has an overwhelming shame over her illiteracy and yet seems to feel absolutely no shame over her concentration camp duties where she handpicked hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews for execution. As she reiterates time and again at her war crimes trial, she had a job to do and that was that. Asked why she didn’t open the doors of a burning church that held hundreds of Jews inside, Hanna earnestly and matter-of-factly says there would have been chaos if she had. After all, she was “responsible” for them. Hanna is so blinded by her supposed duties, she has lost all sense of right and wrong. And without that, shame is hard to come by. Personal shame she understands, collective shame apparently not.
Collective shame may be the overriding emotion in post-war Germany. If Michael represents the new Germany and Hanna pre-war Germany, it’s clear Michael must come to terms with his involvement with Hanna in order to move forward. Twenty years later, Michael finally does just that. As his prof tells him at one point, if people like you don’t learn from people like me, then what the hell is the point?