Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Reader


"What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to make the horrors an object of inquiry is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?" - Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

"If ever a film is to be made about Auschwitz, it will have to be from the point of view of the guards." - Jean-Luc Godard



In February 1944, George Orwell pondered the possible impact the outcome of the war (that was far from over) would have on historical accounts: "A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them gets into the history books will be decided not be evidential methods but on the battlefield." (1) But with the destruction of Germany looming, the Nazis went to great lengths and diverted valuable manpower to destroy as much evidence as they could of their crimes.

The Bernhard Schlink novel The Reader (Der Vorleser) is an unusual contribution to Holocaust literature in that it is only indirectly about a German woman's actions as an SS guard at a satellite camp of Auschwitz. It is really about the woman's illiteracy and the remarkable lengths to which she goes to conceal it from everyone. The novel also expands our understanding of what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote about the "banality of evil."(2) Evil is so banal, in fact, that in this particular case it cannot even read.

The novel has had its share of detractors, most of whom evidently disapproved of Schlink's trying to distract the reader's attention away from what should have been its subject - Hanna's SS past. The 2008 film has clouded the subject further by presenting us with a Hanna played by Kate Winslet, which has led some viewers to believe that her presence in the role makes Hanna somehow more sympathetic. But on our third meeting with Hanna, she is seducing a 15-year-old boy. (3)

Stephen Daldry's film of Schlink's novel is so beautifully made that it is almost a shame that it is so unaffecting. It ends where Michael's story begins, with a middle-aged Michael, played rather diffidently by Ralph Fiennes, telling his story to his daughter: "I was fifteen. I was coming home from school. I was feeling ill, and a woman helped me." (4) Looking out of his window in Berlin one morning, he sees a tram pass by. And he sees himself, at fifteen (now played by David Kross), riding the tram in Neustadt in 1958. Michael leaves the tram, walks into the entranceway of a building and throws up. A woman finds him there and quickly realizes that he is quite ill. She cleans up the vomit, wipes his face and asks him where he lives so that she can take him home. The woman is Hanna Schmitz, a thirty-five-year-old tram conductor, played with solid conviction by Kate Winslet.

After his recovery from scarlet fever, Michael returns a month later to thank her for helping him. She tells him to wait while she gets dressed, and he watches her. When she notices this, she looks at him with a look so accusatory and provocative that he flees. When he returns a second time, under the most innocent of circumstances, Hanna seduces Michael, and they begin an affair.

It is at this juncture in the story that our perception of the situation is altered radically. It forces us to wonder who this woman might be who so casually introduces a boy (5) to an adult world - a world for which he is physically prepared but emotionally ill-equipped to handle.

After their second love-making, he asks Hanna her name. She asks him why he wants to know, with a look that even Michael calls "suspicious." In order to fill the gap left by her unwillingness to engage in small talk during their frequent encounters - encounters that Michael tells no one about - Hanna suggests that he read to her from the texts he is studying. Our assumption is that she is just uneducated, as someone must be who has never heard of The Odyssey. And their relationship deepens for them both because they have become roughly equals - Hanna matches Michael's physical innocence with her ignorance of books. And as Michael is transformed by Hanna's revelations to his body and hers, Hanna is given a guided tour of, among others, Lawrence, Homer, and Chekhov. (6)

"The notion of secrecy," Michael's literature teacher says to his class, "is central to Western literature. You may say the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which, for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose." Then, with no explanation to Michael, although we are informed about her possible job promotion, Hanna packs everything up and leaves Neustadt. Michael is left with nothing but a secret he will always keep hidden, which will make him into a distant and difficult husband and father, that will hurt those who try to love him.

Five years later, Michael is enrolled at Heidelberg University as a law student. His professor takes his handful of students to the trial of six women accused of involvement in a war crime that has only come to light because of a book written by one of the survivors. One of the atrocities recounted in the book is the incineration of 300 women and children in a locked church. Hanna is one of the accused. And Michael watches the trial with intense fascination, revulsion, and guilt. During her testimony, he deduces Hanna's secret, but he fears exposure as much as she, and he does nothing to help her case. He mentions to his law professor at Heidelberg that he has information important to the outcome of the trial. His professor, played by Bruno Ganz, tells him that he must give the information to the court, but he does not. "What you feel," the professor tells him emphatically, "isn't important. It is utterly unimportant. The only question is what we do. If people like you can't learn from what happened to people like me, then what the hell is the point of anything?"

Ron Rosenbaum, in a passionate but wrong-headed attack on the Daldry film,(7) suggests that it was attempting to equate the burning shame of illiteracy with the burning alive of 300 women and children. The criticism expands on this contention by damning Germans as a race for their stupidity in not at the very least questioning the orders of their superiors, and for not disobeying them. "This is a film," Rosenbaum wrote, "whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." In fact, in the film, during Hanna's trial, one of Michael's fellow law students directly addresses this issue: "People go on about how much did everyone know. Who knew? What did they know? Everyone knew! Our parents, our teachers. That isn't the question. The question is how could you let this happen? And, better, why didn't you kill yourself when you found out?"

In her trial, Hanna, under questioning from the judge, presents the only conceivable defense for the charge against her: What would you have done? The judge does the only thing he could do for someone in his position - he ignores the question. E.M. Cioran rightly remarked that it is only because we cannot put ourselves in another person's place that judgement is possible.

Hanna is sentenced to life in prison. Michael goes into a successful career as a lawyer. When his father dies, he returns to Neustadt and while going through his old things he finds the books that he read to Hanna. Knowing she is still in prison, he decides to read them to her again - this time into a tape recorder, and he sends her the tapes. With the use of Michael's tapes, and the books that she finds in the prison library, Hanna teaches herself how to read. The meaning of Michael's gesture has inspired many theories, some of which suggest that it is some kind of tacit forgiveness. When, in 1988, Michael and Hanna finally meet again on the occasion of her imminent release from prison, she reads from his body language and the tone of his voice that he has not forgiven her. It was perhaps her last hope, and its loss is so devastating to her that she resolves to end her life.

In a piece written for The Manchester Guardian, David Hare, who wrote the script for The Reader, mentioned the quote by Jean-Luc Godard I placed at the beginning of this piece.(8) I can only guess what Godard was getting at in that statement. I suspect that he was merely trying to be consistent in his contrariness. That the story of Auschwitz from the point of view of the guards has never been told is, I think, one of the reasons why humanity still has such a hard time grasping how it could have happened. The story of the Holocaust has been told exclusively by the victims. Our only means of coming to terms with the event has been through the testimony of surviving prisoners. The many war crimes trials that have taken place since the end of the war have given us scant information about how such a catastrophe could have been perpetrated in the middle of Europe. All we are told by the criminals who carried out their orders was that it happened or it did not, that their plea is guilty or not guilty. Nobody bothers to ask them why. And the only conclusion we can hope to come to as they are taken off to prison is that they are monsters. It is precisely because we do not see them as human beings that hating the Nazis is so easy, and so superficial.(9)

When, near the end of the film, Michael goes to visit the woman, played with cold exactitude by Lena Olin, who wrote the book that exposed Hanna's war crimes, she tells him, "People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren't therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn't go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. My advice: go to the theater if you want catharsis. Please go to literature. Don't go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps."

But none of this makes The Reader anything more than an intelligent, carefully made failure. It engages its subject so brilliantly, in fact, that it is almost a shame that I was not similarly engaged. It is an unpleasant story that might have been harrowing were it not for the manner of its telling. The wide range of reactions to the film attest to its honesty. It shows us Germans living with the knowledge of their past, right alongside the abiding problems of their daily lives.

Kate Winslet does once again what only she can do, subsuming herself, her beauty and glamor, into Hanna Schmitz. During her trial scenes, her look of terror is almost alarming in its intensity. And the gravity of her testimony, quietly admitting to charges that her co-defendants have all denied, and her admission of something she did not do, leads us swiftly to the same conclusion that Michael comes, hiding in the back of the courtroom. Ralph Fiennes plays the mature Michael, a German who is quite different from Amon Goeth, the Nazi camp commandant he played in Spielberg's Schindler's List. I thought David Kross, however, as the youthful Michael seduced by Hanna, was insufficiently interesting.



(1) "As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944.
(2) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).
(3) In transposing the fictional story of Michael's account of Hanna's - and his own - secret, Daldry committed a significant misstep. In the novel, the first person narrator (Michael) clearly intended his telling of the story to be a matter of public knowledge, for his own but also for the benefit, if any, of Hanna's memory. In the film, Michael is simply telling the story to his daughter.
(4) I will not go so far as an American critic did, by trumpeting that the love scenes between Hanna and Michael are not merely representative of abuse but actually constituted child pornography. In order to avoid just such accusations, the sex scenes in the film were reportedly shot last after David Kross, who plays Michael, turned 18.
(5) Hanna calls him "kid," even after they meet again many years later.
(6) A quibble: their encounters must have been either fantastically long or very frequent for Michael to get through reading so many, and such long, texts to Hanna.
(7) Rosenbaum's article can be found here.
(8) Hare's article is here.
(9) The trial of John Demyanyuk continues in Munich as I write.

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