Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Film "The Reader"

Most of us dream of changing the world, or winning a million dollars, or of having a love so true that it endures the ravages of time. These longings come to life in the Academy nominations for Best Picture of 2008, except in The Reader, where there is neither heroism nor triumph nor that kind of love. Directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours )and based on the novel of the same name by German author, Bernhard Schlink, adapted to the screen by David Hare (The Hours), The Reader is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Female Actor (Kate Winslet) and Best Cinematography (Roger Deakens- No Country for Old Men and Chris Menges- North Country) and is my pick of the five for Best Picture [The Wrestler, having not been nominated, -- though I hold out high hopes for Rourke and Tomei]. I do not, however, expect The Reader to win, for it stirs up moral questions too uncomfortable to consider and does so at a time when we worry that Holocaust minimizers and deniers (Bishop Williamson and Iran’s Ahmadinejad, e.g.) might prevail.

Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), is a woman so un-self-reflective and so dis-embedded from humanity that she considers illiteracy more humiliating than dutiful murder. Hanna is so matter of fact (with the exception of her illiteracy) in her honesty about her crimes, she appears not only worse than callous, but uncognizant of their context and meaning. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.” As I viewed The Reader, I found myself morally confused because I felt unwelcome sympathy for Hanna, I marveled [though she has already garnered BAFTA’s Best Actress Award, and SAG’s and Golden Globe’s Best Supporting Actress for this role] at Winslet’s (and Hanna’s) capacity to elicit such a response in me. There is something more than a little sickening about seeing a Nazi guard as human or sympathetic. [It is a moral question completely devoid of humor, unlike, e.g. the question posed in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway: would you save from a burning building a bum or the last known copy of Shakespeare’s works? which is answered by the untalented playwright (John Cusack) who goes on to opt for the person, and by the artistic gangster (Chazz Palminteri) who chooses the play.]

But there is no dilemma about condemning Hanna’s actions as an SS guard. Lena Olin as the older Ilana Mather had it right: there is nothing that exculpates Hanna’s actions. The dilemma comes because, prior to learning of her former war crimes, we felt her immense constriction of relatedness, how painful and limiting, and only later learned how pervasive was her lack of embeddedness in humanity. Moreover, even after learning of her heinous crimes, I could not help feeling compassion for her deep humiliation, misguided as it was, for her illiteracy.

Michael Berg (David Kross, Ralph Fiennes) too, is disenfranchised: from himself, and from others: his lovers and his daughter Julia (Karoline Herfurth). But he is not so truthful. He hides his affair from school friends and from family; He denies to his law school peer knowing Hanna; Mather, a concentration camp survivor, implores him to “Start by being honest…” It is only after Hanna’s death, and after meeting Mather, that Michael is able to share his inner world with his estranged daughter.

Some have written that it was Michael as a law student who had the moral dilemma (to reveal, or not, mitigating evidence at Hanna’s trial) and that his failure to do so was meant to punish her for her crimes in the deaths of so many Jews. I think, if he intended to punish Hanna, it was for her crime against him, abandoning him eight years earlier. Simultaneously, it was an act of love: he protected her secret, respected her choice, and shielded her from the humiliation she found most profound. Humiliation, in part, led to her suicide, triggered, in part, perhaps, by the face to face encounter of his visit to her in prison. The older Michael had, out of loyalty to his past love for her, discerned the best way to sustain and nurture her while she served her life sentence.

I saw Michael‘s moral dilemma decidedly less impactful than that of the audience. It is not simply the stellar performance of Winslet or the cinematography that made this film my pick. It is because I grappled with what to make of The Reader. Unlike any of the other nominated films, it haunted me for days, and caused me to think about things in a way that left me a different person unto myself.

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