Debate: Is ‘The Reader’ Great Art or Hackneyed Tripe?
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 8:00 am
“Don’t Give an Oscar to ‘The Reader'” is the headline of an angry Slate essay by Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. Rosenbaum says it is “a film in which all the techniques of Hollywood are used to evoke empathy for an unrepentant mass murderer of Jews.” He argues that “This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.”
I’ve argued that most of the fictionalized efforts either exhibit a false redemptiveness or an offensive sexual exploitiveness–what some critics have called “Nazi porn.” But in recent years, a new mode of misconstrual has prevailed–the desire to exculpate the German people of guilt for the crimes of the Hitler era. I spoke recently with Mark Weitzman, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s New York office, who went so far as to say that The Reader was a symptom of a kind of “Holocaust revisionism,” which used to be the euphemistic term for Holocaust denial.
SPOILER ALERT: Based on Bernhard Schlink’s best-selling The Reader, an Oprah book selection, the movie stars Kate Winslet as a German woman in the early 1950’s who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy. Years later, the boy has become a law student and he sees her in court, being tried for atrocities during the Holocaust. He discovers that she cannot read and that her humiliation and efforts to hide her ignorance
On the other side is Roger Ebert, who says “The Reader” is not a Holocaust movie; it is a movie about the consequences of not speaking up. He agrees with Rosenbaum that Winslet’s character “was responsible for inexcusable evil.” But he does not feel that the movie excuses her or redeems her in any way. He believes the movie’s point is that Michael was guilty of worse not because the consequences were as bad but because his education and circumstances gave him more of a choice.
Who committed the greater crime? Michael, obviously, although few audience members might see it that way. He was more mentally capable than she was. She is deeply, paralyzingly ashamed of her illiteracy. It has led her a lifelong neurosis. She worked for the Nazis, as many other Germans did with much less reason, or none at all. What did she go through to keep her secret? What lies did she tell, what intimacies did she betray? Has she never been able to have a relationship with a man without using sex and her greater age to prevent the man from learning of her shame? What kind of a monster was she, that she helped innocent victims to go to their deaths because of a secret that seems trivial to us?