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.

Strength through EasyJet

I recently got back from Berlin, where I spent a few days with a short side-trip to Prague by train. Meanwhile, 49 climate-change activists were arrested for occupying London Stanstead airport, in an attempt to protest its planned expansion. The irony is not lost on me. The activists, who belong to the group Plane Stupid, are fighting an uphill battle against Britain’s middle classes, who have come to think of cheap flights from budget airlines like Ryanair (with whom I travelled last weekend for less than 50 GBP return) and EasyJet, which both rely on alternative ports like Stanstead to keep fares down. Last night on BBC 1’s ‘Question Time’, an audience member who claimed to be generally critical of the West’s limp and weak-kneed response to climate change, nonetheless called cheap flights her ‘right’.

My trip, if I had taken the train (using, of course, the wonderful site The Man in Seat 61), would have cost me realistically 250 GBP, not inlcuding the expenses incurred extra day of travel (meals, loss of an extra day paid holiday, etc.) in an overnight car from Paris to Berlin. Of course, these costs are defrayed by the fact that train travel is far more enjoyable, far less stressful, and far more aesthetically pleasing than air travel, but most middle-class Britons don’t consider taking the train to their holiday hot spots. Indeed, living in Edinburgh, the four-hour train ride to London would further add to my travel costs, possibly necessitating a day’s room and board in pricey London.

Now, everyone deserves to travel. It is perhaps the singularly best way to learn more about our world and ourselves. One of the best things modernity has brought us is the exchange of ideas and worldviews. Of course, this means that the poor and middle classes should also be offered the opportunity to travel. But cheap-flight culture is swiftly becoming a blight on the world not only in its immense environmental cost, but because of the kind of travel it incurs. Cheap-flight culture has spawned countless insulated enclaves of British ‘culture’ throughout Europe. Such ‘Little Britains’, however, leave the charm and history of their native culture with their pets and take the most odious: Tennants-swigging louts in open-air pubs showing the football (Premiership only, please. No La Liga here…) and an endemic barfight and rape culture. Can the new stag party industries that have popped up in Riga and Budapest really insist that any cultural exchange takes place? Britons can go their entire vacations without speaking or hearing a word from a language other than English, or indeed, without speaking to a person who is not also British.

I am reminded Nazi Germany’s Kraft durch Freude campaign in the 1930s, or ‘Strength Through Joy’. KdF was the brainchild of Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front from 1933 to 1945. German Nobel-prize-winner Günter Grass, in his 2003 novel Im Krebsgang or Crabwalk, describes Ley thusly:

it was he who dissolved all the labor unions right after the takeover, emptied their coffers, dispatched squads to confiscate everything t their headquarters, and forced all their members, who numbered in the millions, to join the German Labor Front. It was he, this moon face with a cowlick, who had the inspiration to require all state employees, then all teachers and pupils, and finally the workers in all industries to use ‘Heil Hitler’ as their daily greeting. And it was he who came up with the idea of organizing the way workers and white-collar employees spent their holidays. He provided inexpensive trips to the Bavarian Alps and the Erzgebirge, to the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and, last but not least, ocean cruises of shorter and longer durations—all under the motto of ‘Strength through Joy’.

Ley effectively invented the modern cruise ship industry,  sending joyous German workers on countless trips—with the express purpose of recharging workers rather than objectively improving their lives. Indeed, as Grass coyly points out,

Unfortunately, passangers were not allowed to go ashore from the fjords, possibly because of regulations designed to prevent any hard foreign currency from leaving the Reich.

Shelly Baranowski’s work, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (2004), points out that KdF allowed wage workers a pastime once exclusively the privilege of the upper classes. Moreover, it juxtaposed the poverty of the foreign destinations with the relative well-being of the Reich:

As an agency that at low cost to its consumers sold the cultural practices that signified middle-class standing—concerts, plays, the opera, art exhibits and the theatre, riding, sailing, and tennis lessons, and vacation travel—Strength through Joy testified to the Nazi regime’s desire to its racially ‘valuable’ citizens that it enhanced their well being.

In the episode of  ‘Question Time’ I mentioned, the audience member who asserted her ‘right’ to cheap flights (a sentiment, I should add, with which most of the audience agreed) it was in response to author Will Self’s conjecture that nobody in the audience could say that the end of cheap flights in Britain would actually make their lives worse.

I say this all with the knowledge that I have exploited cheap flight culture as much as anyone, perhaps with an extra dose of unfortunate smugness that somehow my travels are much more enlightening. But what really should be drawn from this guilty pleasure, is another layer to the already confounding problem of travel. How do we, as a society, encourage healthy and beneficial travel and cultural exchange between people of all classes and income without incurring catastrophic environmental and social costs?