Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Reader: Everyone’s a Critic

A rare moment of levity in Stephen Daldy’s Oscar-nominated The Reader appears on screen so quickly we might miss it. Learning to read and write by listening to Ralph Fiennes’ recordings of books from his library, Kate Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz writes him a note, commenting on his latest delivery: “Schiller needs a woman.” Barely a reader, she’s already a critic—and it is one of the few likeable things we see her do in this generally ponderous and mystifying film.

What we know about The Reader is this: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, and the young German actor David Kross put in fine performances in this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel. But there is so much here that we don’t know. What motivates Fiennes’ Michael Berg, at a particular moment among all others, to begin remembering his youthful affair with a tram conductor nearly twenty years his senior? What motivates Winslet’s Hanna to begin the affair? And what are the odds that this particular horny teenager, played by Kross, and this particular needing-contact-in-some-obscure-way older woman would be equally amenable to the affair in the first place? These people start out unknown and unknowable, and unfortunately are no clearer to us when the film ends.

Daldry and his screenwriter David Hare are less interested in character than they are in the Large Issues of the holocaust: responsibility, the possibility of absolution, the limits of understanding. They explore the ways in which the war folded innocence and guilt over on themselves—and not only in the odd morality of obedient Nazis. Here, a shower is both the murderous ruse from the concentration camps and a means of seduction between a young man and a former Nazi guard. Reading is both foreplay and lesson. Hanna’s relationship with Michael, whom she calls Kid, flickers between the maternal and the sexual.

Then there is the reading itself. The film plays with the idea of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights who won herself a stay of execution every night by telling the sultan a story. Here, Michael is the Scheherazade. But while the original Scheherazade tells stories to stay alive, we sense that Hanna makes Michael tell stories because she is alive and others are not. Or does she? It seems more likely that she is slightly unhinged and utterly criminal. At her trial, we learn that she has forced prisoners to read to her before selecting them to be sent to death. Telling stories has not saved them.

But the film implies that reading stories has saved Hanna. The Reader has an uncomfortable way of reminding us of an Oprah story (which the novel once was, many years ago), complete with a Woman’s Triumph Against Adversity. But before we make plans to give Hanna Schmitz posthumous membership in Oprah’s Book Club, let’s consider that this is an Auschwitz guard whose empowerment we’re asked to consider. Daldry emphasizes this point, in case we missed it, when Hanna almost literally hoists herself by her own petard, climbing on a pile of the books she can now read, as she prepares to commit suicide before her release from prison.

In the end, as in the beginning, it’s not clear what Daldry wants us to make of his characters. Should we feel sympathy for Hanna because she kills herself? Does she kill herself out of remorse, or because she’s afraid to live outside the prison? Or (and this is not impossible) because she no longer has an excuse to receive Michael’s tapes? Now there’s a twist on Scheherazade: the listener kills herself when the stories run out. There are more questions. When Hanna refuses to admit that she is illiterate, does she do this out of a sense of shame? Or out of responsibility, knowing she is giving up the chance to exonerate herself? Does she even feel guilt?

When she answers Michael’s question about whether she learned anything from her time in prison, she answers, as if it should be obvious, “I learned to read.” Lena Olin’s Auschwitz survivor says virtually the same thing at the end of the film, in different words, telling Michael that “The camps weren’t therapy.” Nothing came from the camps, she says; you can’t learn anything from the camps. So, if there is no Big Emotional Payoff from the camps, is learning to read the only thing you can do? Should we admire Hanna for her honesty?

If there is nothing to be learned from the camps, what does it mean that we have just sat in a movie theater to watch and learn from a movie with a Holocaust theme? I doubt that Daldry and Hare telling us to stick it. Perhaps they’re implying that they’ve caught us being voyeurs. Now that would be a truly interesting thing for The Reader. Because who doesn’t feel a bit the voyeur watching the camera lovingly follow every curve of Kross and Winslet’s bodies? It’s a provocative notion—though not a new one. Still, I can’t believe that that’s what the film has all been about. The notion is offensive—to think one would use the Holocaust as a vehicle to say we can learn nothing from the Holocaust, but why not watch some nude bodies for a while.

As for the other possibility, that nude bodies in a Holocaust film must always remind us of the dead of the camps, and tell us that our world is perpetually corrupted by the fact that such evil existed—well, if that’s what Daldry wanted to say, he should have done a better job saying it.

[For other views on The Reader, click here.]


  1. Perhaps there is an implied parallel between learning to read and learning to think? Between simply following orders and learning to develop an argument against them? And perhaps becoming a critic is that sign of independence of thought?

  2. Makes perfect sense. She is, I suppose, demonstrating independent, critical thought for the first time in her life--although by what imposition of will or thought-process does she choose this boy, bring him upstairs, and begin an affair with him?

  3. Hmm. Can't pinpoint that thought process I'm afraid, but maybe there is a further parallel in that she knows about life (she obviously knows about sex) and he knows about books, so perhaps it seemed to her to be a fair exchange of knowledge on both sides..? Am struggling to remember the details of the film well enough but wasn't it the ill people that she asked / forced to read to her .. and isn't he ill when she rescues him .. or am I just making all this up to fit a nice theory?

  4. It's very strange, though. She knows only that he is ill when she selects him (an eery thought, yes?) and brings him upstairs. At that point, she has to be simply assuming that he's not illiterate like her (is it important that he's from another generation?), and can thus be asked to read. There's nothing particularly bookish about him when we first see him. If this turns into a fair exchange, and if it's begun in a selecting-the-ill pattern that mimics her role and behavior at Auschwitz, then possibly we're supposed to think that she's gone from a prison-guard mentality to free and critically-thinking mentality. Moving from the crimes and moral failings of her own generation to the free-thinking of the boy's quasi-post-war generation, thanks to his lessons. Does that work?

  5. I'd like to think that pity or some form of sympathy / charity comes into it somewhere but just can't remember the details of the film well enough... Like all good thought-provoking pieces, your blog is making me want to go back to the original text (ie film).

  6. Ah. Good. And when you do--revisit the film--please tell me why on earth buckets seem to feature so prominently in the first half hour!