Monday, January 26, 2009

The Reader


If you haven't seen The Reader, better not read this commentary. The film raises several ethical and existential questions ( based on the book, reportedly) honed by David Hare in his reworking of the script. I've read several reviews, and it is interesting to me to read the various interpretations of the basic ethical issues of the film. Time claims that Hannah's illiteracy is symbolic of Germany's "willed ignorance" of what the Nazis were doing. OK. Plausible, I guess.

(photo: Kross and Winslet from:
None of the reviews (and most discuss it) have no problem whatsoever with a 30 something woman seducing and carrying on a passionate affair with a 15 year old boy (imagine the outrage were it a 30 something man). The boy is willing, eager, and quickly in love. And the love making the film shows us (reportedly toned down in editing) is a lovely sight to behold. The only morally questionable thing ever raised to their romance is her sudden departure, without a word, when she has to change jobs.

The performances by Kate Winslet as Hanna and David Kross as Michael are convincing and emotionally powerful. Kross is as deserving of an Oscar as Winslet is, IMHO. They both have to reveal their secrets and both have to deal with guilt. Was her guilt worse than his? The movie doesn't make this very clear. It is rather unlikely that the boy would turn up as a law student at her trial 8 years later, but that is what happens in the story. Suspend disbelief and go with the premise: she confesses to writing orders she could not have written since she was illiterate. The lad figures this out and is hit with the dilemma whether or not to come to her defense and tell the court ( admitting his affair with her). The difference is whether she gets under 4 years for being a death camp guard, of life for writing a plan and ordering the death by fire of hundreds of prisoners. She confesses to a crime she did not commit to avoid revealing that she is illiterate. Michael considers visiting her and trying to convince her to tell the truth; but in a scene walking to her cell in the snow, reminiscent of when Hanna helped him when he was sick and they met, he decides to refrain from saying anything.
She gets life-- which turns out to mean 20 years.

Because she cannot read, Michael sends her voice tapes of his reading book after book, from Chekhov to D.H. Lawrence. She loves the tapes, and over the 20 years, teaches herself to read, in part to write him letters. He never writes her back. His own life includes a brief marriage and a daughter; but he remains aloof and cold to everyone until he reconciles with his grown daughter when he tells her this story.

That brings us to the heart of the film. What punishment does Hanna deserve-- if any? Why did she leave Michael without a word? Why is Michael so morally bankrupt and conflicted? Is his guilt that he loves someone he finds morally reprehensible? Is the point of the film that we are all, Jewish survivors included, guilty of indifference and inhumanity? Is Hanna's suicide at the end because of guilt, or because Michael shows her no love?

If the film is muddled and does not present the tough ethical questions with clarity or with a resolution that gives any wisdom, it nonetheless raises questions we all should consider as war and torture continue undiminished today. Camus' The Stranger poses something of the same questions, and remains as profound today for the same reason.


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