Friday, February 20, 2009

Wrestling With The Reader

“Oscar-worthy” wasn’t the term running through my mind upon seeing The Reader in early January, prior to the movie picking up Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress (among others). “Disappointing” was the word it inspired. Here is a film that is tantalizing in stretches but ultimately frustrating. It ends about 30 minutes too late, using that excess time for some extremely ill-advised plot developments that sour an otherwise respectably assembled film. In the final act, Lena Olin suffers through a scene that attempts to go so many directions at once that it ties itself in a knot. Meantime, poor Kate Winslet is forced to cap off a mostly engaging performance by donning heavy makeup and adopting a hunchback in order to portray decades-worth of aging, while the character opposite hers is played by two men almost 30 years apart. Oscar tends to like that kind of stuff, but I cringed at the indignity of it.

To the degree I was offended by The Reader, it was for those sins, and nothing more. I intended to write a review of the film at the time, but I found myself too busy. Days and weeks passed, and I was prepared to leave the film uncommented upon here … until I caught up on some reading. Earlier this week, I learned that there are others who were greatly disappointed by The Reader, and who, like me, are anything but excited about the prospect of the film picking up some golden hardware on Sunday. But that’s where the similarities end. Ron Rosenbaum for Slate has suggested that The Reader is the “The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made,” while Rod Lurie for The Huffington Post writes that the film “gives ammunition to Holocaust negationists, to the Archbishop Williamsons of the world, to the people who would tell us that the Shoah is a mass exaggeration.”

These are heavy charges. In lieu of a typical review, I’d like to provide some thoughts in response. (Warning! Nothing but spoilers ahead.)

Before I go any further, take a moment to read the Rosenbaum and Lurie pieces linked above. Go ahead. I can wait. Ready? OK.

Let’s begin as Rosenbaum does, with the implication that The Reader is “The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made.” He might be right about that. See, I don’t think of The Reader as a “Holocaust film” in the first place.

What is it about? I think The Reader explores two interesting topics, the first having to do with identification and the second having to do with ethics. When Michael (David Kross) learns that Hanna (Kate Winslet) was a guard in the SS who was complicit in the deaths of at least 300 people, his first emotion is shock. Hanna’s SS sins were committed before Michael knew her, before she comforted him when he was sick, before they became lovers, before he formed a youthful admiration of her. His first conundrum is to rectify these two disparate realities. Truth: Hanna is an accessory to mass murder. Truth: Hanna was nothing but a friend to Michael. This presents an interesting scenario with universal appeal. What would you do if you found out that someone you greatly admire had a checkered past? Would you disown your relationship with this person? Would you forever look at it differently? Should you?

Michael doesn’t know. He also doesn’t know what to do with his knowledge that Hanna willingly accepts a prison sentence that is based on an inaccurate charge. This is his ethical debate: Michael knows that Hanna is being judged incorrectly, but he thinks she is being punished fairly. (When it comes to the murder of hundreds, does it matter whether you acted alone or stood by with a half-dozen others?) But is this Michael’s decision to make? Does his previous relationship with Hanna, and his firsthand knowledge of her positive attributes, oblige him to come to her defense? Or does Michael owe his allegiance to those victims who aren’t alive to testify against Hanna? Aren’t some crimes so abhorrent that they can never be forgiven?

These are the issues of The Reader. In exploring these elements, yes, the plot structures itself around the Holocaust – an atrocity so well known that it doesn’t need further explanation (that’s why it’s handy). But does that make The Reader a “Holocaust film.” When you think about it, Michael’s ethical dilemma isn’t too far off from the one explored in A Few Good Men. Is that a film about the Marines? In a way, sure, but not at the heart. Same here.

Rosenbaum goes on to suggest that a New York Times article calling The Reader a story about “personal triumph” is a “depressing indication of how the film misreads the Holocaust.” But, wait. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the New York Times misreads The Reader? And if The Reader isn’t even a “Holocaust film” in the first place, isn’t Rosenbaum misreading the film as well?

I don’t disagree with Rosenbaum entirely. He argues that Hanna’s illiteracy provides an all too convenient (partial) pardon for her sins. I agree. But then he goes a step further, suggesting that Hanna’s illiteracy is a metaphor for “the German people and their supposed inability to ‘read’ the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens.” In other words, Rosenbaum believes that Hanna’s illiteracy pardons all of Germany. But this is rubbish. First, this reading ignores that the movie is told from Michael’s perspective and that even he doesn’t absolve Hanna. Meantime, Hanna doesn’t forgive herself. She accepts her sentence, rather than fight it, and upon earning her freedom she kills herself. These things suggest guilt, not innocence.

Still, I respect Rosenbaum’s discomfort when he calls The Reader (and Downfall) “revolting” for portraying the laypeople of Germany as “poor, unknowing … victims.” Yes, Hanna is a victim of sorts in The Reader. Yes, the character is made more appealing thanks to the beauty of Winslet and the use of “manipulative nudity” (though it’s hardly unusual to see unusually attractive individuals in movies). Yes, Hanna experiences a “triumph” late in the film as she learns to read. Yes, that triumph is an ill-advised development, first because it’s a sloppily executed distraction from the film’s established themes, and second because it creates doubt about its intent by briefly showcasing this mass murderer in an endearing light. But these things never made me fond of Hanna. I never felt sorry for her. And she ends the film remembered by Michael not as a lover but as an instrument of mass murder. This didn’t escape me. So why is Rosenbaum convinced it will escape everyone else?

It’s here that Rosenbaum’s case against The Reader gets messy. He quotes a Barnes & Noble summary of the novel that inspired the film that calls Hanna’s illiteracy “a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, that’s irresponsible and sickening. But that’s a book distributor’s synopsis of a novel, any faults of which shouldn’t be held against Stephen Daldry’s film. Likewise, Rosenbaum is potentially misleading when he describes Daldry’s justification for why the church fire isn’t portrayed in the movie. Rosenbaum writes: “As I learned from the director … the scene was omitted because it might have ‘unbalanced’ our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills.”

Please note that “unbalanced” is the only word Rosenbaum directly attributes to Daldry. The rest, at least potentially, is his interpretation of what that word means. Yes, it could mean that Daldry was afraid we would feel worse about Hanna’s injustices as an SS officer than about her illiteracy. Or it could mean this: Daldry wanted us to be able to see Hanna through Michael’s eyes. Remember, it’s Michael’s story. If the audience witnesses murders that Michael must force himself to imagine, then we might fail to relate to Michael’s conflict. According to Daldry’s design, our view of Hanna is the same as that of the main character: First we fall for Hanna, and then we learn about her past. Somehow we, like Michael, must figure out how both these Hannas could be halves of the same whole. Not depicting the church catastrophe enhances the mystery of the story and its ethical debate.

But Rosenbaum and Lurie don’t want debate. More than anything, they seem offended that Hanna is allowed to be painted with shades of gray, that she is anything less than a stereotypical red-blooded, Jew-hating Nazi. Essentially, they take issue with the fact that Hanna is humanized. This mystifies me. Isn’t the humanness of Holocaust orchestrators a key element of what makes their inhumanity so haunting? Aren’t we obligated to learn from the Holocaust precisely because these almost unthinkable atrocities were carried about by “regular” people? To this effect, Lurie quotes Winslet quoting Daldry saying, “These were young men and women who didn’t know what they were getting into.” It sounds overly understanding, I know. But both Winslet’s comment and Daldry’s are conveniently out of context. Couldn’t Daldry have meant that many World War II era Germans failed to imagine the full magnitude of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, even if they were aware of it? (Never mind, by the way, that Winslet’s interpretation of the film and the film itself are two different things that should be tried separately.)

In my mind, if the Holocaust wasn’t started by “normal people,” we have less to worry about. Then we can just be on the lookout for psychopaths. The reality is that Nazis weren’t born with some unique genetic makeup. They were conditioned into a belief system that made evil seem permissible. This doesn’t make their actions acceptable in hindsight. It makes them terrifying. And while Rosenbaum and Lurie are busy ravaging The Reader for failing to provide us with yet another one-dimensional Nazi Jew-killer, they miss that perhaps The Reader is a metaphor for recent history instead.

Sure, there are few, if any, atrocities in the history of the world that are on par with the Holocaust, so maybe The Reader is too careless with its references. Nonetheless, perhaps Rosenbaum and Lurie need to see Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure. What they’ll find within that documentary are “normal” people who enlisted in the military and wound up doing abnormal, horrific, shameful things – things that were done in our name, whether we were aware or not, whether we endorsed their methods or not. (Does that make each of us culpable?) Certainly Lurie is correct that Hanna is “not guilty of the crime for which she is sentenced.” But she’s still guilty. The Reader makes repeated efforts to get that point across. And in the meantime many Americans who ordered, performed or condoned torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere have avoided being charged with anything. But the guilt still applies. At least Hanna does time.

Lurie argues that The Reader is to blame because its audience, “many of them young people uneducated about the Holocaust, will take as fact what they see on screen.” If this is true – if this R-rated film is the only window to the Holocaust that we give “young people,” and if these “young people” are taught that this film is “fact” – then we’re the ones at fault. If people are so uninformed that The Reader could have such a profound effect on the definition of the Holocaust, we should be ashamed not of the film but of ourselves. In the end, blaming The Reader is a little too convenient. Almost like telling the story of a mass murderer who is made quasi-endearing through her sexuality and quasi-helpless due to her illiteracy, I’d say.

What say you?


hokahey said...

I'm as flabbergasted as you are at the responses of Rosenbaum and Lurie. They don't seem to be watching the same movie. They are responding to isolated details - one being that if a main character (Hanna) is a sympathetic character, then this must be the "worst Holocaust film ever made." Even if we are sympathetic to Hanna, and even if the Lena Olin scene "ties itself in a knot," and I agree that it does, Olin makes it clear that Hanna cannot be forgiven and that her money cannot make up for anything. Besides that, Hanna is sentenced, she is punished, and she suffers. I don't see any mixed messages there.

The Reader is a well-intended film about guilt - though it's a disjointed film that is not consistently strong throughout. The only injustice I see here is that Winslet has been nominated as Best Actress for the wrong performance this year. Her portrayal of April in Revolutionary Road is far superior.

FilmDr said...

Ultimately, I liked The Reader for the way it raised questions about Hanna's identity that never get fully answered. Her relationship with Michael remains a little creepy to the end, and it's interesting to trace her effect on him. Later on, she seems surprised that he has grown up, and she remains kind of detached about him throughout the film. I was surprised by her suicide. After watching the film, I got into a long discussion with someone about why the later Olin scene had to be in the film, to fully show how there was no way to exonerate the woman for her crimes. By placing the viewer within Michael's perspective, the movie forces us to view Hanna as more than a moral monster, and yet, she's not all that virtuous either. Hanna remains something of a mystery throughout. And, ironically, Michael becomes the one full of guilt for not intervening in her trial. Both Michael and Hanna end up being cautionary examples of the lifelong effects of emotional crippling.

The main scene that bugged me was the one where Michael walks meditatively through the concentration camps, looking at the shoes. That seemed too "cinematic," overbearing, and unnecessary.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

FilmDr: I'd forgotten about the concentration camp scene. There's another moment that makes the position of The Reader quite clear.

To move away from the Holocaust angle for a moment, a few more thoughts on the film ...

I think it's far stronger if the Olin scene is removed, if Hanna's efforts to read are removed, and thus if Hanna's suicide is removed. I like the idea of closing with Michael recording all those narrations, sending them off, and then still refusing to respond to her letters: He feels he owes her something, but he has his limits. What we have here instead is so sloppy.

hokahey said...

You're right. The ending is sloppy. (I had forgotten about the concentration camp scene as well.) As if we need that scene to be reminded that the Holocaust was horrid! I like your ending - Jason. If it had ended with Michael recording the books - turning Hanna into "the Reader" - I would have seen his character, and the focus of the film, clearer.

Quanah said...

The holocaust scene was not for us to be reminded of the horrors of the murders. I think that statement is egotistical in the minimum. I think it's shameful that a viewer always views a film as if scenes were "conducted" for the audience, when in reality this scene was a progresion of Michael's storyline for Michael's journey, not ours. We were just observers in this who were eaves dropping.

Michael was conflicted. The only way he was going to try and "understand" (as he put it himself) was to see for himself. But remember what Llana Mather said at the end? She says, "...all who go in that place come out changed." Michael may not have gone in as a Nazi, or a death camp survivor, but he certainly exited that personal field trip to the camp changed.