Tuesday, November 23, 2010

THE READER (2008): Melodrama and the Holocaust

The makers of the movie, The Reader, try so hard to make their film relevant that I almost feel ashamed pointing out that they fall far short of their goal.  With the Holocaust as a backdrop, we need more than a steamy soap opera to project themes of collective guilt and individual accountability.  The movie damn near wastes the talented performances of Kate Winslet as the convicted war criminal, Hanna Schmitz, and David Kross as the young Michael Berg.  The film nearly dies of its own self-importance.  Unfortunately, it never really makes the viewer feel ashamed concerning our own passive acceptance of human suffering.
Before knowing anything about Hanna Schmitz’ past history, the young Michael Berg becomes the lover of the much older woman.  Michael is fifteen at the time while Hanna is in her thirties, and both live in Germany about ten years after World War II.  The two perform a rather strange ritual each time prior to making love.  Michael reads the works of some classic author, and then the two become entangled and perform in almost every sexual position known to mankind.  This goes on for some time.  In fact, a great deal of the first half of the movie portrays the two leads naked and growing ecstatic over something Michael is reading.   Then, after a brief four month affair, Hanna suddenly disappears without giving Michael any notice of her intentions.
Eight years later during the mid 1960s, Michael is now attending law school in a prestigious German University.  We are led to know that he is quite brilliant and therefore is enrolled in a special course taught by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz).  Part of the requirements of the course is to attend the trials of German citizens being tried for various war crimes.  One of the defendants turns out to be Hanna.   The students debate the necessity of the trials and whether defendants like Hanna deserve any more leniency than a bullet to the head.  Michael, never sharing that he had an affair with Hanna, is obviously troubled and, even more obviously, distracted from being objectively able to discuss what is occurring.  Michael is so impotent to communicate anything that he thinks or feels that he cannot even step forward to provide evidence that would help mitigate part of Hanna’s sentence.  Hanna is accused of masterminding the barricading in of three hundred Jews inside of a church building as the church burned to the ground.  There is the testimony of two survivors of the fire, Rose Mather (Lena Olin) and her daughter (and famous author), Ilana Mather (Alexandra Maria Lara).  There is also evidence of an official document of the incident supposedly written by Hanna.  A number of other prisoners on trial testify that Hanna was the one that ordered the barricading of the church doors and that she alone prepared the report.  Though we only had a few hints of it up to this time, Michael knows that Hanna is illiterate and could not have prepared the report.  Thus, we finally figure out why Hanna left the job she previously had as a tram conductor because she was being promoted to a position that would have required the reading of paper work.  And obviously, we now understand why Michael had to always read to her to get her in the mood for passion.
The trial scene was somewhat interesting.  Hanna is facing a judge and interrogator (Burghart KlauBner) that seems determined to place the guilt for the church burning incident upon one individual.  When asked why Hanna did not simply attempt to free the prisoners from the church, Hanna lamely explains that to do so would have created disorder.  She states that she was accountable for the subjects and could not simply allow them to go free.  She then asks the judge what he would have done under the same circumstances, but the judge refuses to address the question.  Of all of the defendants, Hanna is the only one that appears truthful in her testimony - except at the point where faced with the written report.  Apparently ashamed of her illiteracy while being asked to provide a handwriting sample to see if she was the actual author of the report, Hanna simply “confesses” to having written the report.  So while the other prisoners get off with relatively light sentences of a few years of incarceration, Hanna is sentenced to life in prison.  Michael, never having stepped forward to testify that Hanna could not read, listens as the sentence is read and sheds tears.
Years later, we see an older Michael Berg now played by Ralph Fiennes.  Michael now divorced and with a daughter that he is on somewhat uneasy terms, is guilt-ridden about his past behavior and plagued by his inability to maintain a personal connection with those that he is closest to.  He learns about the location of the facility in which Hanna is located.  For a number of months he makes recordings of the various books that he has read including ones he knows to be some of Hanna’s favorites, and he sends these recordings onto Hanna.  Hanna, then through the use of the prison library, compares the recordings to the actual books and teachers herself how to read and write.  Because of Hanna’s exemplary behavior in prison she is then scheduled to be released on parole after twenty years of imprisonment.  The older Michael actually goes to visit her shortly before her release.  Michael assures her that he has a place for her to stay and a possible employment position.  Unfortunately, Hanna, knowing that she could never face the new complexities that a free life would entail, hangs herself in her cell before the date of her release. 
Hanna did leave a will.  She left all of the wages she had earned through prison labor in the care of Michael to be given to Ilana Mather, the survivor of the church burning.  Michael travels to New York City to deliver the money to Ilana who, not surprisingly, is not at all touched by this bequest.  As Ilana explains, she cannot take the wages of someone convicted of war crimes against the Jews and suggests that Michael use the money for whatever he wishes.  And when Michael explains the exact relationship that he had with Hanna, Ilana is even more unimpressed.  When in the camps, Ilana remarks, the prisoners did not have time for lofty moral considerations as to who exactly to blame.  They did not have the freedom to pursue literature or interests of the arts.  All they could hope for was survival, and even this wish was seldom granted.  However, Ilana does keep the tin container in which the money was contained while returning the money to Michael.  This she kept as an artifact as the container reminded of ones she possessed in her childhood.
The film ends with Michael showing his daughter Hanna’s grave and for once in his life being open to one close to him about his past.
There are a number of problems with this film.  Rather than provide a perplexing revisit to the moral dilemmas surrounding the Holocaust, The Reader instead gives the viewer the filmmakers owned perplexed outlook on the subject.  Asking questions is not the same thing as coming up with answers.  Loneliness, illiteracy, an inability to communicate one’s feelings and a sense of insecurity cannot be considered adequate explanations for the existence of indifference or human cruelty.  There are plenty of lonely and insecure people in the world that do not lock individuals up in churches that burn to the ground or hold back evidence that may prevent another individual from spending a lifetime in prison.  We supposedly are to see the inner demons that two characters try to exorcise out in a sexual relationship between a fifteen year old and a much older woman.  Obviously, this shows that the two characters had a human side to their character.  Yet as was shown in the film Downfall, Hitler himself had a human side that in no way excuses him.
Hanna could enjoy literature while following the orders of the Gestapo at the same time.  She could still justify this years later in her mind while at the same time justifying having sex with a fifteen year old without any qualms about the consequences it would have to him.  Most individuals would have considered her a monster.  Whether she was or not I suppose nobody could say with absolute certainty because we never learn her whole story.   Stories about passive individuals that are perpetually compelled by outside forces to perform evil deeds are indeed maddening.  Unfortunately, most of us would probably have fared no better under the same circumstances.  Even so, that’s no cause for redemption.  We cannot go down that road where we say that all are to blame and therefore no individual can be held personally responsible for his or her acts.  To say we are all sheep and not capable of something better creates its own impotence to act that will continue to make Holocausts possible.  But what’s much worse than the impotence to act is to be resigned to the impotence to act – even if that helplessness is very real.  In the face of a huge slaughter as occurred in the camps, to fail to be outraged that one could not do more to stop it is tantamount to being dead inside.
This dreary 124 minute film holds out no hope that humans can be something better.  If compassion and the desire to help others can be set aside due to personal shame then we are placing our own minor concerns before making the world a better place.  That’s all very well in a sociological study, but it hardly makes for great art or for a world that is worth living in.  We never see anything in the film that resembles real growth in the two key characters.  From beginning to end there are only lies and no human qualities that would endear us to either one of them.  Even the affair is more cathartic than tender.  In the end, Michael thinks he can relieve himself of his guilt by confessing his sin of omission to his daughter.  Hanna believes there is nothing she can do concerning her crime now that the Jews are dead besides either practice stoic acceptance or commit suicide in her cell.
If we concentrate only on the first portion of The Reader showing the interaction of the young Michael with Hanna, we’d have a disturbing film.  The acting of Kate Winslet and David Kross almost make it worth viewing again, though we’d need to get deeper into the character’s backgrounds to understand such suppressed passion.  The acting of Bruno Ganz and Burghart KlauBner makes the next portion of the film somewhat absorbing, but by then most of my interest in Hanna and Michael had dried up.  When Ralph Fiennes takes over the role as Michael, I see a middle-aged man devoid of human emotion and consumed only by his own self-worries.  At least the young Michael, humorless though he may be, appeared innocent enough to stumble into his affair while appearing badly in need of human warmth.  The final scene where the older Michael goes to New York to meet with Ilana Mather was probably the only straight-forward scene shown in the entire film, but four minutes of clarity can hardly make up for another two hours of playing cat and mouse with the character’s motives.
Defenders of this film do appear to be a sensitive bunch.  Admirers tend to accuse critics of failing to appreciate the complexity of The Reader.   This sort of adoration ignores that the director of the film was guilty of obscuration.  Let me again summarize the plot of the movie in a single sentence: (a) stick a torrid affair between two desperately insecure individuals that occupies one half of the movie (and pulls viewers in) into a story about the Holocaust; (b) throw in some love of classic literature that is read out loud in English rather than German (I’m still contemplating what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have sounded like in translation); (c) muddle things up with a mysterious disappearance of a key character; (d) try to elicit sympathy through pointing out that same character is illiterate; (e) mix in some debate style questions about the crimes of the Holocaust in a college setting; (f) toss in a divorcee who feels he has been a bad parent because he does not communicate well with his daughter; and, (g) if as an afterthought, remember to make reference to 300 people that were barricaded in by the Gestapo and died in a fire.  After all that confusion, someone will still try to suggest that this film was a bold new statement concerning collective responsibility for what happened during World War II.  If this is the premise for this movie, why didn’t the filmmakers devote more time to the subject of the Holocaust?  I agree that the film contains a significant amount of symbolism.  Hanna’s torrid love affair with a fifteen year old boy has meaning.  Hanna’s illiteracy has meaning.  The reading of classic works has meaning.  But placed in the context of Auschwitz, such symbolism stands for little and explains practically nothing.
The Reader is only Stephen Daldry’s fifth film, and I wish he would have tried to direct a few more movies before taking on a subject like this.  Unfortunately, in retrospect, the movie does not seem to improve in one’s feelings or thoughts during the days following the watching of this film. 
February 1, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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