Monday, January 11, 2010

“Can A Perpetrator be a Victim?”: Varying Perspectives on The Reader

The Reader is based on the novel by German author, Bernhard Schlink. The film adaptation was directed by Stephen Daldry. The Reader is a coming of age story of a young man who has an affair with an older woman who he discovers later in his life had been a guard in a Nazi concentration camp years before they met.

USF World Languages professor Margit Grieb provided the context concerning the critical reception of the novel and film in the author’s home country of Germany. Grieb noted that there was a split between the older and younger generation’s interpretation of the film. The older generation was more sympathetic to the love story between the young boy and the older woman who seduced him; whereas, the younger generation was sharply negative of the film citing it as "cultural pornography." They were referring to the older generation’s incapacity to morally come to terms with their horrific past.

The older generation’s inability to mourn explains the German silence about the atrocities in the year after WWII. In failing to work through the past, they left the work of mourning to the second and third generations. The author belongs to this second generation. The personal engagement of the second generation in confronting the Nazi past stems, Dr. Grieb believed from the need to address their own parent’s past of collusion, complicity, and silence. A second reason the later generations began to engage with the past was that Hollywood, an American enterprise, was beginning to tell the story in a manner that captivated Germans. The majority of the German population watched the television miniseries Holocaust. Nevertheless, the success of both the book and the film is a testament to the fact of the Holocaust as part of the public discourse.

Psychoanalyst, Beth Reese noted that watching the film may cause a trauma in some audience members and it is important to discuss the ability of the film to tap into preexisting trauma or to traumatize. Does the film work to express issues related to the Holocaust or to stimulate discussion about sexual victimization? The film raises issues of sexual assault in childhood and reflects the shame and guilt of the survivor. Ms. Reese felt it difficult to have empathy for Hanna and imagined that for a woman to use a child in this way must point to her own underlying history of victimization. The effects of the trauma on Michael included his inability to engage in age appropriate activities. He was compulsively drawn back to Hanna. Hanna took no responsibility for what she did to Michael. Most importantly, Michael had to keep the affair secret, a trait of sexual molestation interactions. Finally, to come out of the trauma, Michael violates his own daughter by telling his sexual story to her.


One central question explored by the audience was whether or not Michael and Hanna experienced erotic love or sexual abuse? And did their sexual relation play a role in Michael not putting his legal skills to work on Hanna’s behalf.

One male audience member wondered why Michael had not assisted her during the trial. Beth Reese felt it was because he was angry with her. Ms. Reese added that like traumatized individuals he knew and did not know about the abuse. Hanna’s leaving him was emotionally abusive and his family was unavailable as well. According to Ms. Reese, Michael had trouble integrating his experiences and was incapable of connecting emotionally with anyone.

Another male audience member felt the trauma perspective was a 21st century invention. He wondered “why not me?” as the questions boys would ask. This man saw Michael receiving pleasure.

A woman audience member said that had the genders been reversed, he would have seen the traumatizing aspects of it.

The male audience member, who initially raised the question about Michael responsibility to Hanna, clarified the context of male-female relationships in post-war Germany. After the war in Germany, there were few available men. He saw their relationship as “extra-erotic.” Michael he said was her lover and he was like a son to her. The movie makes it sexual abuse, but considered in the context of time, it is not abuse. This man felt Michael had an obligation to use his skills to help Hanna, rather than letting her spend her life in prison.

A woman audience member, herself a Shoah survivor, felt that it was characteristic of the people to keep silent. People in Europe never stood up, she said, because of fear that they would be made fun of. Evil, she said, is made up of petty things like that.


USF Religious Studies professor, Darrell Fasching, framed his discussion around the question of the role of the humanities in humanizing individuals and their societies. Fasching argued that conscious and ethics are products of literacy; that a society without language and literacy cannot give rise to individuals who have an inner life. Preliterate societies have a different type of ethics and morality. Offering a unique position, he felt that Hanna Schmitz gained a conscience after she learned to read and realized that what she had done to the prisoners in Auschwitz was heinous and immoral.

This view stimulated robust debate. A male audience member who identified himself as a scientist said that literacy and language determine ethics, but moral behavior is taught by the family. Literate Germans, he noted, turned out to be barbaric in their embrace of Nazi practices. A Shoah survivor said that Hanna cannot be rationalized. “If you want to be a good person, you practice kindness, you don’t read books.” A male audience member wondered what literacy had to do with morality.


A member of the organization Generation After, stressed the importance of Michael’s meaning to Hanna. It was when Michael would not return her letters and when Hanna learned that Michael had not thought about her in a romantic way, but he was more interested in whether or not she had learned anything after all those years in prison that she became depressed. Books are a fake metaphor. Hanna wanted Michael to respond to her. When he did not, she let herself go and committed suicide.

Darrell Fasching offered the quotes below for consideration:

With respect to universities and university professors, Alice Gallin in her studies of resistance to Hitler, concludes: "I found cells of resistance in the army, the intelligence circles, the labor unions, and the churches, but none in the universities," with one exception in Munich.[i] George Steiner, in his book Language and Silence, reflecting on the Holocaust in the light of this fact, asks the surprising question: Do the Humanities Humanize?

As Steiner puts it: "When barbarism came to twentieth century Europe the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident." What troubles him is that "literary values and the utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility,. . . that bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism."[ii] "I find myself," he says,

unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize . . . . It is at least conceivable that the . . . substance of our training and pursuit, diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, . . . we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world . . . . The cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside . . . . Thus there may be a covert betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.[iii]

Elie Wiesel, puts the issue in another way: "it is possible to be born into the upper or middle class, receive a first-rate education, respect parents and neighbors, visit museums and attend literary gatherings, play a role in public life, and begin one day to massacre men, women and children, without hesitation and without guilt. It is possible to fire your gun at living targets and nonetheless delight in the cadence of a poem, the composition of a painting. One's spiritual legacy provides no screen, ethical concepts offer no protection. One may torture the son before his father's eyes and still consider oneself a man of culture and religion. And dream of a peaceful sunset over the sea. Had the killers been brutal savages or demented sadists, the shock would have been less. And also the disappointment.... Adolf Eichmann was an ordinary man.... I was shaken by his normal appearance and behavior. ... it occurred to me that if he were sane, I should choose madness. [iv]

Robert Jay Lifton, in his study of the Nazi doctors, speaks to this latter point. He relates that he told a death camp survivor of his surprise that the Nazi doctors he interviewed, doctors who had done the selections for the gas chambers in the camps, seemed so ordinary. He thought they would seem more demonic. And the survivor responded: "But it is demonic that they were not demonic."

If the liberal arts failed to live up to their moral calling, so did science, technology and the professions. The death camps were planned and run by Ph.D.s and M.D.s, by "technological barbarians" as Franklin Littell calls them. In his brilliant study of The Nazi Doctors,[v] Robert Jay Lifton demonstrates in detail that the biological-racial vision of the Nazis provided the context for the "medicalization" of the final solution. Why were the selections (of those Jews who would immediately be gassed and those who would be interred in the camps for slave labor, medical experiments, etc.), required to be done by M.D.s? His answer is that a bio-medical metaphor underlay the "final solution" -- the metaphor of the Jews as a malignant intrusion into the healthy body of the German Volk which must be removed to restore the body to health. By requiring a physician to make the selections, the Nazi used the scientific, technical and professional status of the medical doctor and researcher to legitimate its "final solution" to the "Jewish problem." The Nazi physician found him or herself in the paradoxical role of the professional who had to kill in order to heal.


[i]Alice Gallin, Midwives to Nazism: University Professors in Weimar Germany 1925-1933 (Macon: Mercer Univesity Press, 1986), p. 4. See also her study German Resistance to Hitler: Ethical and Religious Factors (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1961).

[ii]George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1970), p. 61.

[iii]George Steiner, Language and Silence, p. 61.

[iv] Elie Wiesel, One Generation After, New York: Bard Books/Avon,1965,1967,1970, pp.10-11.

[v]Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, (New York: Basic Books, 1986).


Margit Grieb is Associate Professor of German in the Department of World Languages where she teaches courses on German film, literature, language, and culture. She also directs the USF Film Studies Certificate Program at USF. Dr. Grieb has published various articles on film, feminism and new media. Her latest essay, entitled “Fragging Fascism,” a chapter in After the Digital Divide? and edited by Lutz Koepnick, investigates the representation of German fascism in popular US videogames. Her book Transformations: German Film in the Wake of New Media will appear later this year with the Edwin Mellon Press. It focuses on German film and new media productions and examines the aesthetic and formal representation of emergent media embedded within the “older” representational system of the cinema.

Darrell J. Fasching is Professor of Religious Studies of the University of South Florida in Tampa where he has been a member of the faculty since 1982. He also holds a joint appointment in Special Education. Over the last decade and a half he has served as Associate Dean for Faculty Development in the College of Arts and Sciences and as Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He has also held an affiliate appointment in Medicine and a courtesy appointment in Philosophy at the University of South Florida. Before coming to Tampa, Dr. Fasching taught at Le Moyne College in Syracuse New York (1980-1982). Darrell J. Fasching is the author of Narrative Theology After Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (1992), The Ethical Challenge Auschwitz and Hiroshima (1993) and (with Dell deChant) Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach to Global Ethics (2001).

Beth Reese, MSW, earned her certificate in Psychoanalysis-Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research-New York Member International Psychoanalytic Association in 1992. She has extensive work with traumatized children and adults including Holocaust survivors at JBFCS in New York City. She is in private practice of children, adolescents, and Adults-psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. She is the project coordinator-Child Psychotherapy Project providing pro bono services to foster and adopted children and their families. She is on the faculty of the Contemporary Institute for Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Group and USF’s Department of Psychiatry.