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?

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7 Replies to “Debate: Is ‘The Reader’ Great Art or Hackneyed Tripe?”

  1. Hi, Nell. I just happened to see “The Reader” this weekend (after having read Ron Rosenbaum’s intriguing article in SLATE) and I thought it was gripping and very moving.
    In some ways, the film reminded me of “The Lives of Others” in that it lead us (or at least, me) to have compassion for a person who seemed at the outset to be incomprehensible and beyond forgiveness. I did not in any way blame Michael for being unable to forgive Hannah while she was alive. It seemed to me that, in part, the movie was about the failure to connect with others. Hannah, as a young woman, was unable to connect, to feel with, the victims of the Nazis, and that failure to connect led to her unforgivable, horrific actions.
    Michael, as a young law student, is unable to “connect” sufficiently with his professor in order to confide in him, and as an adult, he becomes cold and withdrawn, and is able to connect fully either with his wife or with his daughter.
    And Michael, as an adult, though he is compelled to reach out in some small way to Hannah by making the cassette tapes, is unable to make a full connection with her (perhaps because it would require him to do the impossible, and forgive her) and I think in part it is that failure that leads to her suicide.
    I think the reason I disagree with Rosenbaum’s piece is that I don’t think the story creates a moral equivalency between being a Holocaust victim and being illiterate. I think it asks us to have compassion for the very human predicament of Hannah Schmitz, a woman who may be beyond forgiveness, or beyond redemption, but who is not beyond compassion.

  2. As I meant to say, Michael as an adult was unable to connect with his wife and daughter.
    There was also a theme of the relationship between secrecy and coldness for me – that Michael’s “secret” as a young man that he was having an affair with an older woman nearly turned into a lifelong habit of secrecy that kept him at a remove from everyone around him. And Hannah’s secrecy about her shameful illiteracy helped to condemn her.
    It also occured to me that Hannah began to learn, imaginatively, to connect with others through learning to read. The movie, it seems to me, suggests that the more she learns to connect, the more she realizes the unforgiveable nature of her crimes.

  3. One more comment – perhaps Michael had a moral obligation to keep Hannah’s secret about her illiteracy, even if he had a legal obligation to tell what he knew?

  4. Hi, Nell. I think, yes. Michael’s decision not to tell Hannah’s secret was an affirmation of her human dignity. Even though she had exploited him, manipulated him and lied to him, perhaps he owed her that.
    I think this is a very morally complex story. While I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same category as “The Lives of Others” I think it asks really important questions and makes demands of the audience.
    Of all her co-defendants, Hannah seems the least morally culpable to me, because of her forthrightness about her crimes. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t morally culpable, but her honesty in some sense puts her in another category from her co-defendants. How about when she asked the judge “What would you have done?” I didn’t hear a reply.

  5. I LOVED The Reader, thank you very much…a LOT MORE than “Schindler’s List”, which was truly the tripe you speak of. I’m insulted by your debate.

  6. Thank you, Marshall. But it is hard for me to understand how a debate, especially one as respectfully framed and balanced as this one, can be considered “insulting.” I welcome your comments at any time, but please try to remember that the rules for this site encourage discussion rather than accusation and insults like “tripe.” If you would like to explain your ideas further we’d be glad to hear them. I am sure they deserve it and I know we do, too.

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