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.
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 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.”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.
-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
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.