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.

Cold Pastoral

Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road

I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.

So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.

Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West.  Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.

Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?

The answer, I think, lies in the symmetry of the narrative. As James Woods writes revisiting Yates in the New Yorker,

The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.

One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work.  The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable.  We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.