Blind Man with a Pistol


The Worst Holocaust Movie Ever Made

No, not Jakob the Liar (1999), whose twin crimes consist of 1) enlisting the holocaust to effect unearned pathos and 2) employing Robin Williams. According to Ron Rosenbaum, this unfortunate distinction goes to Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader (2008). Disclosure: I have not seen the film yet, but I have read Schlink’s novel. And while I understand there are key differences between the film and novel, some of which Rosenbaum addresses in his review, Rosenbaum’s chief criticism stems from his interpretation of the novel’s conceit: namely, that Hanna, played by Kate Winslet, a concentration camp guard on trial for war crimes, is less guilty because she turns out to be illiterate. Indeed, Rosenbaum believes that the film pretends redemption because Hanna learns to read while serving her prison sentence (that she could have avoided had she admitted her illiteracy):

that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder!

Leaving aside the fact that Rosenbaum apparently gleans his plot glosses from promotional copy rather than actually reading the novel, I think, underneath Rosenbaum’s justified anger at Barnes & Noble’s reduction, the book giant inadvertently makes an important point: does shame, truly, bear any relation to the objective gravity of a crime? Indeed, is a healthy dose of shame really what we want from those who commit the most inhuman of crimes? The fact that Hanna is illiterate does not vindicate her crime, but it does demonstrate how vulnerability, no matter how it is expressed, renders the human subject susceptible to the worst demands of fascism. In fact, we know this is how fascism works: brought low through the excesses and oppression of the elite, the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated seek solace in the solution and affirmation of racism and violence. But to explain is not to excuse: it is such simplistic logic that the far-right employ to smear supporters of social democracy.

This is not to say that Rosenbaum’s criticism is without merit. He is right when he says ‘Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a “Holocaust film,” it must be worthy of approbation, end of story’. When Steven Spielberg attempts to impart the gravity of genocide through a flash of colour from a little girl’s red dress on otherwise black and white photography, the result, when fully considered, is cartoonish if not grotesque. But Rosenbaum’s isolation of The Reader for particular opprobrium is curious. In a Slate article published three months before his request to deny The Reader an Oscar, Rosenbaum names the film as an example of an increasing obsession with the sex life of Nazis. Oddly, Rosenbaum condemns all of Germany, the only nation in the world, incidentally, ever to engage publicly with its homegrown fascism, for elevating Schlink’s novel to best-seller status; suggesting, in the process, that Germany is especially receptive to ‘Nazi porn’ or holocaust revisionism.

But Germany is unique in its journey to reconcile a fascist past with contemporary understanding. I wonder if Rosenbaum would condemn Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s similar attempts, or indeed Peter Eisenman’s postmodern Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As Professor Julian Dodd wrote in the letter pages of the Guardian, Hanna’s guilt is never ‘mitigated’. It haunts the text like the 300 victims of her complicity and equivocalness:

The affair between Hannah and Michael is not “glorious”; though sexually fulfilling, it is troubled and hints at disaster from the off. When Hannah silences the judge with “What would you have done?”, the judge is not silenced by her moral honesty, but is rendered speechless by horror. (Hannah’s question ends cross-examination in which she fails to see she had a moral responsibility to save 300 people locked inside a burning church.) Finally, it was, indeed, toe-curling to see Michael attempt to carry out Hannah’s wish that her money be given to Ilana, one of her victims. But this was precisely the effect that this scene was designed to elicit: to the very end Hannah has failed to appreciate the nature of her crime and Michael, in fulfilling what he takes to be his duty to her, has failed to see this too.

Perhaps this irony is not as evident in the film as it is in the book, but I suspect Rosenbaum is uninterested in making a distinction. Besides, he condemns Schlink’s novel and David Hare’s screenplay equally. Rosenbaum’s goal remains to judge the inhabitants of 1940s Germany and their descendants unequivocally. Aside from the crude Manichean logic such a crusade necessitates, it is also supremely arrogant.  Hare composed a withering response to critics like Rosenbaum (and, specifically, to Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian),

it turns out that a few broadsheet film critics in Britain do indeed belong to a category of people who would have resisted Hitler when he came to power. So the great shame is, clearly film critics should have been running Austria at the time, because Hitler would have represented no problem to them at all. [The Guardian’s] Peter Bradshaw would have known exactly what to do, and he would not have been remotely fallible to any Nazi who threatened his life. No, he would have died in heroic acts of individual resistance. So it’s a privilege to live among people who enjoy such moral certainty.

The question Hanna asks the judge, ‘What would you have done?’ is posed, naturally, for us too. It conceals a bottomless horror: a knowledge of evil without the concomitant knowledge of righteousness. It echoes both in known history and unknown contingencies. The Reader captures this echo, in its horror, its irony and its desire. Preventing genocide and fascism, something, criminally, this century has yet to accomplish, is not about deciding at which doorstep to lay the blame of past sins, but to seek the understanding, caution and fear that will keep such inhumanity at bay.

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5 Comments so far
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I haven’t seen the movie or read the book but what an interesting analysis of the reaction to its premise. Hare is right to point out his critics’ “moral certainty”. (As am aside, it does make Ricky Gervais’ irreverent “Holocaust movie” remark when he presented Winslet with her Golden Globe even more wicked.)

I also agree with you about Germany being one of a few if any post-fascist countries to have engaged in public discourse of their collective crimes against humanity. To stifle such reflection as it has evolved over time is a dangerous over-reaction. And as you say, it prevents us from keeping such inhumanity at bay.

As for this observation:

When Steven Spielberg attempts to impart the gravity of genocide through a flash of colour from a little girl’s red dress on otherwise black and white photography, the result, when fully considered, is cartoonish if not grotesque.

Touché! That touch of red had the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Comment by Beijing York

Personally, I can’t abide Eisenmann’s huge “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, totalitarian in scale and discourse. I am far more moved by the little “stumbling stones”, paving stones in metal marked with the birth and death dates of Jews and other victims of Nazism, in many German cities.

Comment by lagatta

lagatta: Totalitarian is an interesting way to look at it. My response was that the monument imparted a flawed totalization rather than totalitarianism. As if it tried to reach the limits of human suffering while admitting the impossibility of such a task. But I take your point, certainly, and I do like the idea of the stumbling stones.

And BY: I’m always amazed at such holier-than-thou incriminations of the actions of our predecessors. What buoyant confidence one must have to condemn the Hitler Youth. To me, it seems like Schlink’s approach is much more human: to see barbarity sideways, to better find a way in.

Comment by Blind Man

[…] closer to saying the fact that she teaches herself to read in prison somehow makes up for allowing innocent people to be murdered.  I think instinctually, even if you had never seen a book in your life, a (sane, adult) human […]

Pingback by Two Blondes Go To a Movie: The Reader « Two Blondes Walk Into a Blog

Ironically I watched Schindler’s List, and was looking for something to watch and picked, The Reader unaware of the link between the two movies. These films promote people to search for their own interrpretation of events by reading available information. I wondered how much of this recollection was fiction? I felt that is was a subtle approach to why ignorance perpetuates to manifest unimaginable consequences. Why is the affect always judged without understanding the cause.

Comment by Robin W.




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