Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Reader

I saw the movie The Reader on DVD a while back. A few thoughts:

  • Before you groan about "yet another Holocaust movie", I want to point out that this one is surprisingly double-edged. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael Berg who, as a young man (played in flashback sequences by newcomer David Kross, b. 1990) has an affair with the much-older Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet, b. 1975 -- about right). Hannah, it turns out, had been a guard in a Nazi concentration camp and was implicated in the deaths of a hundred or so Jewish female prisoners. Michael, in possession of mitigating (though not exculpatory) evidence, mulls whether to come forward in her defense. Ultimately he doesn't. The movie is pretty explicit in showing that the same political correctness that prevented Germans from speaking up in behalf of the Jews in the '30s is now at work preventing people from speaking up for anybody accused of a war crime. And in so doing, the film invites the audience to have some sympathy for a very stupid, morally obtuse SS camp guard. You don't see this every day.

  • Be grateful for America's legal system. The "trial" in which Hannah is sentenced to life imprisonment is a Star Chamber kangaroo court in which the judges are also the prosecutors, and Hannah has no legal counsel. The miscarriage of justice that we witness is an excellent argument for our adversarial system.

  • A word about the affair. It occurred to me that Michael's sexual relationship with Hannah had on him exactly the effect that I would expect. He really loved her, not just in a lustful way, but in a thoroughly romantic, goofy beta kind of way. He's loyal to her, notwithstanding the designs of his female classmates. He contrives a cross-country bike trip with her. Hannah's emotion distance pains him, and the movie draws a pretty straight line between her betrayal (she disappears when she is afraid her illiteracy will be discovered) and Michael's lifelong difficulty maintaining relationships. This was a remarkably conservative theme.

  • A word about the sex. The Reader is the most genuinely erotic mainstream film I have seen since Exit to Eden 15 years ago. My impression is that, after the well-deserved failure of the movie Showgirls, Hollywood pretty much abandoned the art of the sex scene in any but the most non-erotic, comically absurd context. I'm not sure why this is, or even if my thumbnail history is correct. Perhaps with the widespread availability of cable and Internet, and with them the easy access to pornography, Hollywood decided that the market was getting squeezed.


Elusive Wapiti said...

I have noted that the films about Nazi-led Germany and WWII in general are becoming more nuanced and balanced in their depiction of ordinary Germans and even ones who took part in the Holocaust.

It is nice to see the bloody shirt waving anti-Hun agitprop dwindle, and in doing so, I hope that we see that "it" can easily happen here.

Φ said...

That may be true, although Operation Valkyrie is the only other movie I'm aware of. Personally, I'm still waiting for Spielberg to produce a movie version of The Culture of Critique. :-P

Elusive Wapiti said...

Mrs Wapiti and I watched "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". That is another that depicted ordinary Germans with some humanity.

Whiskey said...

Both Boy and the Reader were awful films (at least that's how I reacted). The Reader was determined to excuse the Winslet character for locking up women and children in a building and setting the building on fire. Because she was illiterate. It was the most ... female, and moral equivalent, film in decades and no wonder it won Winslet an Oscar.

It was indeed an argument from "women's logic" found in a lot of female entertainment: that any crime no matter how awful can be excused if the criminal feels bad about for five minutes, has the correct attributes ("hot" guy, non-White guy, female, etc) and some "handicap" like illiteracy. As opposed to say, the difficult path the Robert Duvall character follows to redemption (he goes to jail) in "the Apostle."

The Boy in Striped Pajamas was the same thing (very female) ... that evil can be fought with mawkish female sentiments (much like that Roberto Begnini film too come to think of it). Many (not all) women find this sort of "beautiful victim" stuff entertaining.

As a practical, historical matter, once Hitler came to power as a result of Weimar ineptitude and constant, Communist pressure (and legitimate fear) there was nothing for ordinary citizens to do but flee if they could or endure if they must. Though Hitler was extraordinarily popular (particularly among young women) for a good deal of time. Germany was too young a nation, with too fragile and dependent institutions (the Army, the Civil Service, the civil society) to provide any meaningful check on Hitler.

Germany's problem was not "Germans were evil" but that there was no healthy lawn to crowd out the weeds.

Φ said...

Whiskey: I'm not disagreeing with you about Germany, except to point out that the men of Valkyrie didn't flee or endure, but fought back. And in the spirit of it-couldn't-happen-here, it's tough imagining the collection of lackeys and time-servers that constitute the upper rungs of our own military doing anything remotely as courageous.

For what it's worth, Hannah's "path to redemption did, in fact, include twenty years in prison followed by death. That's not exactly walking away from her crimes. I thought the movie went to great lengths to remind the audience of her guilt both through the stories of her survivors and her own testimony. She could have claimed fear of punishment had the prisoners escaped, but she didn't. Her illiteracy was only relevant to the degree to which she exercised on-scene authority, as indicated by the report. It wasn't meant to excuse her.

I dunno, I guess that people are monolithically evil only in cartoons. That doesn't mean that their evil actions ought not be punished.