Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guest Review: The Reader (2008)

by Koshcat

What happens when you find out a monster turns out to be a regular human being? How about if you found out your first love turned out to be a monster? These and other questions came to mind after watching The Reader. I’m going to cheat and link to the Wikipedia description of the plot because I want to focus on other issues related to the movie. I am also only focusing on the movie as I haven’t read the book.

The plot can be found here: The Reader.

Overall it is a good movie but not a great movie. Kate Winslet is very good as Hanna. Her breasts, which you will see a lot, are a little saggier than they were in Titanic but also more realistic. Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael is solid, which is to be expected. I was particularly impressed with David Cross who plays the younger Michael. He seems to have a bright future as an actor.
There are some problems with this movie. For example, why does Michael turn his back on his family, even his siblings? It is never explained and doesn’t make much sense. The elements around Hanna’s suicide are also unclear. She spends much of her life in prison teaching herself how to read. Perhaps this opened her eyes and either she felt her punishment was inadequate or couldn’t live with herself. However, when asked by Michael what she thought about her past, she retorted that “the past was the past” indicating that she never did appreciate her crime. She may have realized by learning to read she will never have the relationship she previously had with Michael. Basically, she finally grew up but then couldn’t deal with being an adult. Although leaving things unsaid or unexplained can make a movie better, I thought these weakened it. I also would have liked to see a stronger relationship between Michael and Professor Rohl. Finally, the situation around the Ilana Mather, the survivor of the concentration camp where Hanna worked, was strange. How did she and her mother survive the church fire? Did someone help or did they just fight to survive. It is never explained. She also seems to have personally succeeded by publishing her experiences and by expiating the deaths of her friends and family where Hanna gained nothing. I’m not sure if the movie was showing us irony or antisemitism.

Metaphors are purposefully used by good authors and directors, although I often wonder how many are purposeful and how many are made up afterwards. A good artist allows you to try to figure that out and this movie has plenty of possibilities. The illiteracy of Hanna could represent generational illiteracy about the Holocaust. The relationship between Hanna and Michael could represent multiple themes: the younger generation’s interested in the wonders of the Nazi regime while being consciously ignorant of it’s evils; the emotional conflict of the younger generation accepting the past; the older generation preferring not to deal with its past sins; the older generation seeking its own pleasure at the expense of the younger (the last could be seen today with the generational shift of money via social security and Medicare to those who control most of the wealth in our country).
The film has its critics, some calling it child pornography. Of note, while Mr. Cross looks and acts young, he was 18 when making the film. The film initially makes the sexual relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman seem wonderful, however, it is clear that Hanna is using Michael’s naivety for her own pleasure. We also get to see a teenage boy become a more confident young man up until she leaves. This whole experience leaves a negative impression on Michael where he seems unable to have healthy relationships with his subsequent lovers, friends, or family.

The more intense criticisms are related to the films overriding themes of the Holocaust and illiteracy. Below are two examples from the Wikipedia entry.
“...you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.”
-Manohla Dargis of The New York Times

“...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... Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you're guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it's not shown in the film.”
-Ron Rosenbaum of Slate
These both surprised me because it was as if we saw different films. I don’t think illiteracy was being used as an excuse to forgive the crimes. Illiteracy trapped Hanna into becoming an SS guard. In the movie she is a hard worker but twice she leaves jobs when offered promotions. The one that had the most effect on her life was when she leaves Siemens to join the SS and become a prison guard. In addition, she didn’t use illiteracy to hide her crimes. Instead, she took full responsibility of the crime verses the other defendants who refused to admit any. Perhaps if she could read, she would have never gone down this path in the first place. This leads to a couple bigger issues surrounding Nazi Germany.
How complicit are the regular workers with regard to the Holocaust or other atrocities? It is easy to sit back and criticize these people but in reality what can an individual person do? They are one small cog in a large machine. If she left or refused to perform her duty, she would be killed and easily replaced. This happens in totalitarian regimes. It takes a minimal threshold of individuals to make changes and totalitarian leaders exploit this. To maintain control they brutally make examples of dissidents to keep others in constant fear. To survive, you work hard, keep your head down and your mouth shut.

Hanna has always been a hard worker and didn’t make waves. She wasn’t a hero and didn’t want to be; she only wanted to survive. 300 women were being guarded by six guards, a very difficult task. Their task was to keep the prisoners from escaping, period. This is why a system that encourages liberty and individual rights is so important. Our system in general allows an individual to stand up against atrocities like this and survive. Something liberals either seem to ignore or hate.

The other issue is with regard to forgiveness. If someone has no chance for forgiveness how can she atone for her sins? Do we forgive what the Nazi’s did? Absolutely not as the crime is too great. But can an individual be forgiven if she seeks atonement? I think so although it does depend on the situation. For example, I don’t think there is anything Goring could do to atone for the Final Solution. One important aspect to learn from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is that any one of us could easily end up in the same situation as Hanna. To deny this is being naive and I have history to support my position. The Holocaust isn’t the only or even the worst atrocity to have occurred. We have the Soviet Union, Communist China, Liberia, Rwanda, Darfur, and many others. What Hanna did was wrong and she should be punished. However, she should also have the opportunity for atonement if she seeks it. And I think this is the biggest problem liberals have. Did the US treat Africans and Native Americans poorly? Absolutely, but how long are we to suffer for something that happened before our grandparents were born? And why do liberals seem to have so much trouble admitting to the atrocities of their beloved communists? Crimes of complicity like Hanna’s occur in situations where individual rights are suppressed for the benefit of the whole.

Movies like this allow us to talk about bigger issues. More importantly, and why I think those critics missed the mark, is this movie wasn’t about Hanna. It was about Michael. That’s why it was called The Reader and not The Listener or The Illiterate Nazi Bitch from Berlin. This was Michael’s story of coming to grips with his history and past. It takes Michael most his life, but he seems to finally understand that you can both be disturbed by an atrocity and forgive; that is hate the sin, love the sinner. He also learns that by keeping the history a secret, the next generation won’t learn from it. The possibility of being a “monster” like Hanna resides in all of us but by recognizing this, perhaps we can prevent the next one. This starts by reading, learning, and talking about it.

42 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the excellent review Koshcat. I haven't seen this one, but it sounds interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I love the alternate title: The Illiterate Nazi Bitch from Berlin. LOL!

Koshcat said...

It was better than I expected but still I think it could have been really good with developing Michael a little more. I'm still a little taken aback by the negativity expressed by some on the topic. I wrote the review because I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Koshcat said...

I hear that will be the title of the straight to video sequel.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Bravo! :)

On not being able to stop thinking about it, that's the sign of a worthwhile movie.

On the negativity, it's hard to say. My guess is that it violates a sacred cow or two. That plus there is a serious rise in antisemitism these days which seems to bleed over into these kinds of things.

Koshcat said...

Not being Jewish or German, I could be insulated or even naive as well. I would be curious if there are any out there who read this blog and saw the movie how they felt.

I remember picking up a similar negative vibe regarding Munich, which should the main character having doubts about the ethics of revenge killing. To me both the initial desire and the later doubts made him more human.

Anonymous said...

I probably won't see this one Koshcat,but it was a great review.
"How complicit is one individual in a totalitarian regime? It takes a certain minimal amount of individuals to make a change and totalitarian regimes exploit this. If Hanna had left or refused she would have been killed and replaced. In a totalitarian regime you keep your head down,you work hard and you don't make waves."
Absolutely. If I had been born in the wrong place and time I'd have been drafted into the German or Soviet army and I'd have done what I was told.
How do you judge people who have guns to their heads? Or worse than a gun to the head,starvation pointed at the head of their families?
Thoughtful review. One small tip though. When discussing the breasts of actresses who are gracious enough to share them and are getting older,don
t say saggier. Say "fuller" or "more mature." ;0
GypsyTyger

Koshcat said...

Thanks for the response. I appreciate the breast description advice as well. In some respects their appearance added to the movie. Hanna was tired and sad; the breasts accentuated that look.

Kit said...

I remember around the time it came out Big Hollywood trashed it big time but your review actually has my interest piqued.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, What did they criticize it for?

Kit said...

The main character was a Nazi and it portrayed her sympathetically. Same as the one's Koshcat listed.

AndrewPrice said...

Ah. Well, subtlety isn't their specialty at BH.

Koshcat said...

I think many have this caricature of a Nazi camp guard but I suspect most were more like Hanna than SS lieutenant Goeth.

Kit said...

Andrew,
No, it is not.

Koshcat,
Interestingly, they actually toned down Goeth's crimes because they thought no one would believe his real-life actions. But good point re Hanna. You might be right.

Koshcat said...

I was watching a documentary on the Nazis. Initially they would just shoot prisoners but it was not only inefficient but they found that after awhile the executioners had problems doing the act. Gassing allowed them to kill more at a time and was less hands on.

There is a scene during the trial (The Reader) where she is asked whether the guards were to each select 10 people each week to go to the concentration camp. She indicated that they did and knew what was going to happen to them but she also retorted that what was their choice. New arrivals kept coming in every day and there wasn't enough room or food to keep them. She would try to select those she didn't think would live anyway. Her brutal reality was not accepted well at the trial.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I'm not excusing what they did, because ultimately everyone had a choice, but that's how these things work.

Morality becomes remarkably flexible when people are faced with no good choices. And what most do is to try to find ways to be as moral as possible within the limits they are willing to take. Thus, for example, a Buddhist monk might set himself on fire rather than participate because he has no tolerance for participating in the immoral. But others aren't willing to expose themselves to personal risk. So they start looking for little things that make them think they were still doing their best -- like trying to protect children over adults, etc. or killing the sick to save the healthy.

But once all the pressure is off and others are sitting in judgement, they never take into account the situation the person faced. They basically assume that everyone has a duty of moral purity and to act as the Buddhist monk and sacrifice themselves.

Is that right? That's a tough philosophical question for which there is no right answer.

Kit said...

Koschat,

Do you know the name of the documentary?

That reminds me of a quote from Schindler's List by Amon Goeth:
"They cast a spell on you, you know, the Jews. When you work closely with them, like I do, you see this. They have this power. It's like a virus. Some of my men are infected with this virus. They should be pitied, not punished. They should receive treatment because this is as real as typhus. I see it all the time. It's a matter of money? Hmm?"

Koshcat said...

War crimes are also defined by the winners. Have you seen the documentary "Fog of War"? In it McNamara discussed the firebombing of many Japanese cities. He was an analyst during the war and his group calculated that this was the most effective means to increase casualties. He stated that if we would have lost the war he and his team would have probably been charged with war crimes.

War is bad and should always do our best to avoid it. Perhaps overly simplistic but if you start with this premise and finally decide to go to war, than you are more likely to do so with open eyes and a clear goal.

Koshcat said...

Kit,

I think it was a discovery channel based multipart documentary from the BBC.

Creepy, especially since you hear some of the same talk coming out of parts of Europe today.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's true. In fact, one of the more interesting "war crimes" issues involved the use of submarines. Originally, they wanted to charge the German Admirals with a war crime for sinking civilian vessels without warning. But that's how we strangled Japan, so our own admirals said that we couldn't charge the Germans without putting our own navy at risk.

Kit said...

Koschat,

I think that scene was done more to illustrate Goeth's lack of humanity. What most people see as having a conscience and being capable of empathy he sees as some virus-like spell by the evil Jews.

Kit said...

Koschat,

Was this it?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz:_The_Nazis_and_the_%27Final_Solution%27

Kit said...

LINK

Koshcat said...

No, I think it was this one.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_History_of_World_War_II

Koshcat said...

Sorry, that wasn't it either.

I think it was actually this one:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_at_War_(TV_series)

Kit said...

Ok. Thanks, Koschat.

ScottDS said...

Koshcat -

I remember picking up a similar negative vibe regarding Munich, which should the main character having doubts about the ethics of revenge killing. To me both the initial desire and the later doubts made him more human.

I never understood the criticism for Munich in this regard. There are no doubt legit criticisms that can be made against the film but I never saw the "Hero questioning his mission" as any kind of moral equivalence.

Tennessee Jed said...

nice review, Kosh. I dismissed this one, because I feel the Holocaust is depressing, and has been done too often. It has a great cast, but appears to suffer from being so much less than it could have been.

Koshcat said...

ScottDS - I liked Munich but I admit it wasn't very memorable. I think showing reluctance to continue killing makes him more human and realistic.

Koshcat said...

Jed -

Unlike other Holocaust movies, they don't show any of the atrocities. Instead you see how painful it is for Michael sit through the trial and her testimony unaware that she had this history. Prior to this trial there is very little mention of the topic. I completely agree with your last sentence. It had so much potential to be a great movie but falls short.

CrisD said...

Koshcat, thanks for this great post!
I agree with the theory about metaphor for the naive youth who were being taken advantage of by the older, brutal, knowing Nazis. That fits.
I believe it was difficult for me to interpret this film because I was so terribly turned off by the "child porn" presentation. I was so disgusted that I kept thinking, "Why am I watching this and when will it be over?"
My husband is always interested in seeing major actresses show their breasts-so he didn't mind:)

T-Rav said...

I remember hearing some talk about this movie when it came out, but I never saw it. Honestly, not sure I'd want to see an older naked Kate Winslet. (I denounce myself.)

As to the moral issues surrounding the movie, there's a misunderstanding here which I think needs to be cleared up. Nobody "had a gun to their heads" when it came to the killing of Jews--no Germans, at least. A number of historians who have done in-depth studies of these killing operations (Christopher Browning, for example) have shown that the low-level participants were not coerced into either killing or assisting with the killing. In fact, in a number of cases, they were directly offered the chance by their superiors to excuse themselves from the activity (which precious few took advantage of). Of course, they might be subject to abuse and ostracism from their comrades or co-workers, but that's an order of magnitude different from being told "It's your life or the Jew's."

Which is not to say there aren't moral quandries surrounding the Holocaust. Several of the camp survivors have commented on how frequently one was simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator. Nevertheless, the premise and plot of this film, as far as I understand it, disturb me, as it seems to be an echo of the Left's undying belief that human evil can and will be eradicated through education and other mechanisms of "progress."

Koshcat said...

T-Rav-

There are plenty of examples of bad behavior that occurs without the threat of violence. Most whites in the 50s and 60s were not violent to blacks but many still participated in their segregation. Even in childhood an individual may act cruel to another student when with a ground but not do the same action when they are alone.

Koshcat said...

Ground= crowd

The movie is told from Michael's point of view and he may be an unreliable narrator. We see hints that she often isn't a warm human being and his love for her is not really returned in kind. They also show that she really didn't understand the seriousness of her crimes. In addition she would be the perfect liberal: shut up, do your duty, go have sex with young boys, repeat. Education can't cure evil but individual liberty can help lessen its grip.

KRS said...

T-Rav's point is spot on. There are numerous instances wherein Nazi officers and enlisted refused immoral orders. There were SS officers who refused to carry out the Ardeatine cave massacre in Italy (reprisal for the killing of SS troops by partizans) and in that instance they were told that Hitler had ordered the shootings. In no instance is there an indication that any of these individuals were punished. It may have happened elsewhere in the war, but, as T-Rav says, historians find plenty of cases of Wehrmacht and SS refusing such orders and having their decision respected.

These facts are even more damning for those who "were just following orders" because they demonstrate there was a free choice available to the lowest ranks.

Koshcat said...

KRS - I think you actually proved my point that there wasn't absolutes. Some of the SS officers were evil murderers and some were not. I think it is also important that there are concentration camps where political prisoners and prisoners of war how housed in a focused area (concentrated) for easier control. As many or more people died in these camps from malnutrition, disease, and over-work. Then there were death camps where the only purpose was to kill as many people as possible. An individual could work at a concentration camp and even be harsh or firm with prisoners and still be within a reasonable range of ethical behavior. Most of these people were not put on trial or found to be guilty of war crimes. Often orders would come in to transfer prisoners from one camp to another. Occasionally it was to provide more workers for a new construction project but often was a euphemism to send the prisoners for planned extermination. Officers in these camps, especially SS officers, often had a pretty good life (well fed and housed). They could refuse this order but to do so you could be charged with insubordination. You may not be shot but you may end up on the front line somewhere. I suspect many choose to believe that the prisoners where just being transferred for work. However, it is clear that many enjoyed their job a little too much.

El Gordo said...

I haven´t seen the movie. It may be good but reading the plot summary and comments here, there doesn´t seem to be any point or meaning. At least not with regard to her illiteracy and the horrors of the third reich. I know Germans these days (if they are not indifferent to history) tend to see themselves as victims of "the war" and "the nazis" and increasingly, the allies and their bombing campaign. Wasn´t the church in the movie set on fire by an air attack?

A bit off topic, I have never seen a movie that really shows how a highly literate, ostensibly christian nation that had been a center of science and culture for decades could fall to the nazis (though it must be said, the jews were disproportionately responsible for culture and science). It always seems to be something that "just happened" because the masses were duped.

I think the reason we never see it is that the recognition would be too painful. It is more comforting to show the nazis as something apart from the people, like aliens or heel-clicking remnants of 19th century conservatism and militarism.

The truth is, we know them very well. They were revolutionaries. Young, full of energy and attractive (in the context of the time). Artistic. Creative. They rejected the old order, the old elites. They promised change. Equality. A future for a depressed nation, a positive identity and selfimage. A clean break with the troubled past. They appealed to romanticism.

They were a hit among students even before they captured workers and farmers. And the masses were not duped. They really got something out of it. The nazis passed very liberal (in the modern sense) labor laws. Protected the professions from competitions. Distributed jobs and treasure looted from jews and other countries. Delivered big stimulus for industry and construction. Were conscious of health and environmental issues. They loved mothers and children and sent them on exciting trips. They practically invented holidays for the working class.

Except for the violence and mass murder, it is modern politics. Far too many bright people looked at them and saw a model to emulate. What else is new?

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, That's a great point. One of the mistakes that Hollywood makes with the Nazis is to show them as some sort of evil hulking creature and the citizen of German were either victims of terror who fought back and tried to save Jews or were brainwashed by the evil creature and became part of it. There is no middle, nor is there any awareness of human nature.

I think people would be shocked to realize that Hitler never saw himself as evil, nor did the other Nazis. They saw themselves as noble leaders who were going to free their people from the oppression of others. Yes, there were some sadists, but most saw their evil as the means that justified the ends. And the Germans who supported them saw them as idealists who were going to build a new and better world for all the world to worship. Others followed them because they handed out the goodies. Others followed them because they were in charge and that is what you do... do what you are told by the authorities.

The problem with this kind of presentation is that (1) people instantly think you're endorsing Nazism if you make them anything less than melodramatic evil, (2) people wouldn't want to accept this as true because so many of them would see themselves reflected in your presentation -- and they don't want to see themselves as evil either, even as they scream to have the wealth of the rich stripped from them or their neighbors deported or they think nothing of following evil/illegal orders, (3) it indicts liberalism, which is premised on the idea of making a better world by forcing those who don't act correctly to get in line or be punished, and liberals don't want anything to suggest that their use of force could be immoral, and (4) it requires a level of subtlety that isn't popular in Hollywood anymore.

KRS said...

Koshcat - Well, that's an interesting take. And here I thought I had argued for absolute moral standards! I shall have to walk this back.

Given that a "camp" by definition held innocent people as prisoners and could be oriented to either slave labor production or extermination (both crimes against God and man), I think there remains a moral imperative to either interfere at any level or to refuse to cooperate. Therefore, my arguement is that there is no range of ethical behavior outside of either sabotage or insubordination.

On a related topic, I recall a lot being written on the extent to which the Germans as a people were aware of the holocaust. As more research was done, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, it's been shown that much of the population were well aware of the existence of the camps and their purpose. For a variety of reasons, they were not motivated to do anything about it.

Frankly, I think even the American practice during WWII to inter innocent Americans of Japanese, German and Italian descent was morally objectionable despite the fact that they were treated well on the prisoner standard and not subjected to forced labor. They were innocent - that is the key factor - and any order to cooperate in maintaining such an operation is an illegal order.

Koshcat said...

Concentration camps are often an unfortunate necessity in war. We have one now sitting in Cuba. The issue with the Germans is that their plan wasn't to just concentrate potential enemies during war. They had decided to de-populate large areas for future German immigration. The camps often started off as work camps but it took to long to work people to death and was easier to gas them. If you look at it purely from a efficiency point of view, their choice was the only one, which is even more ghastly. My main point of the article is that in a free society that respects the individual, decisions like that would be more difficult. They are still made and even if they make sense are not welcomed (Death Panels anyone?).

I think it is easy to sit back in our warm houses and safe environment and criticize the individual for playing along rather than going for sabotage or insubordination. My argument is that those choices are much more difficult when you are faced with real hardships. In addition, many of the Germans were raised to believe that many of these groups were their enemy and stood in the way of greatness. In addition, the camps themselves dehumanized people making it much easier to tell yourself that you are caring for dirty animals rather than humans. Innocent is our term for many of these people. They were seen as enemies of the German people who were determined to destroy Germany. They didn't see innocent children; they saw future enemy soldiers. They didn't see innocent women; they saw collaborators.

El Gordo said...

Koshcat, let´s not forget envy. The Jews had a tradition of learning, hard work and success and were widely resented for it. Perhaps this goes back to the 19th century when local sovereigns and clergy did not encourage simple people to study a lot. By 1930, if you wanted to get ahead in academia, law, art or public administration, chances are there was a capable jew in front of you. I think many reasons why people supported the nazis were entirely materialistic. A couple of years ago people in Indonesia rioted against the successful Chinese minority there. I think there were killings. Same thing, basically.

El Gordo said...

Andrew, exactly. This view doesn´t excuse the nazis and their followers, it makes them scarier because they look terribly familiar and modern.

They had something for the right (national strength), the left (social justice, equality) and the middle (jobs, safe streets, upward mobility). They even ran up the obligatory mountain of debt.

Oh, and they were sensitive to public opinion, too. That is why they took efforts to hide some of their crimes and delayed the full mobilisation of industry until well into the war, when it was too late. Until about 1943, women were not required to work in armaments factories. They remembered that constant hardship drove Germans to revolution in 1918.

To be fair, many saw the evil in their agenda and character. But I think that hindsight and those clips of a screaming Hitler obscure some of their attraction. We see a dictator in uniform. Perhaps people back then saw the uniform of a common soldier. A simple man with an Austrian accent. You know how important it is in modern elections, to look and talk like "one of us"?

Despite this, Hitler was not elected by a majority. People weren´t entirely sold. But if there had been elections in, say, 1937 or 1940, he might have done vastly better despite the public brutality against opponents and jews. Because for many people, until the middle of the war, the nazis delivered.

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