Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Reader - Exculpation by Stereotype?


Ron Rosenbaum did not like The Reader:

This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it's a "Holocaust film," it must be worthy of approbation, end of story. And so a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that "ordinary Germans" were ignorant of the extermination until after the war, now stands a good chance of getting a golden statuette.
It turns out that The Reader did not win a Best Picture Oscar, but Kate Winslet did get a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hannah Schmitz, a guard at Auschwitz who played an active role in at least one large-scale, gratuitous extermination of Jews.

I don't think the film attempts to exculpate Germans on grounds they didn't know what was going on -- Hannah makes it plain that she and the other guards knew exactly what was going on, and at least one character in the film points out that the general public's ignorance of the extermination camps was a practical impossibility.

Inasmuch as the narrative sanitizes German atrocities, I gather it is on grounds of a certain notion of German reserve or discipline or what have you: Hannah is frustratingly inarticulate about the motives behind her conduct, both in her dealings with Michael and, later, in her testimony about her participation in Nazi-era killings. Underscoring the theme of the superfluity of moral discourse or self-analysis, at least three significant characters -- Hannah, Michael, and Michael's unrealistically-drawn law professor -- make the point that what one believes, thinks, or feels about a deed is nothing compared with the bare fact of the deed.

The best and only explanation Hannah gives for locking 300 people in a burning church is to say that the guards had to take care of the prisoners, that they simply couldn't be allowed to roam freely through the town. She shrugged off the idea that she herself might be executed by the Nazis had she chosen to open the church doors, leaving unexplained what she was shrugging off -- did she believe the Nazis would not have killed her for this breach of duty? Did she find this too obvious to affirm? Did she genuinely fail to recognize that it might have served to take the edge off her moral blame?

I don't know. With this taciturn lump at its center, I found the film baffling and incoherent in its presentation of morality and law. Clearly -- or so it seems to me -- Winslet won the Oscar for the basest of Hollywood-ish reasons: because she was "due," because she played a character that aged and came vanishingly close to mental handicaps ("the Full Retard"), because it was a Holocaust-themed movie, and perhaps because she did so many nude scenes.

To be clear, I think Winslet is a brilliant actress, which is why I think she should have won Best Actress for her portrayal of April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road -- a better and richer performance in a much better film.

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