Ari Kohen reflects on touring “the most terrible place I have ever been in my life:”
Having been to Buchenwald, it all seems so much harder to believe than it was when I was listening to survivors’ stories, learning about it in school, or going to a museum. But it becomes almost unthinkable to travel here, a few miles from the Goethe and Schiller houses, and to try to imagine how people could build a place like this one, let alone how they could live in its shadow. They went to the neighborhood bakeries, they read great literature, they played with their children, they walked in the local parks. It is unimaginable to me, especially when I think that these were regular people and not devils. We want them to be monsters because only monsters should be capable of this; but that is one of the principle lessons, I suppose: regular people perpetrated these monstrous crimes and so it is regular people — us, all of us — about whom we must think.
“I’m not frightened. I’m not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need. You will leave life even more beautiful than you entered it. Heaven will take you back and look at you and say: Only one thing can make a soul complete and that thing is love.” ~ Intrigue and Love by Friedrich Von Schiller
I finally had a chance to watch The Reader. If I had seen this movie before I made my favorite movies list, then The Reader, based on the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, would have definitely been in the top 10, maybe even the top 5.
It’s a forceful movie, and Kate Winslet’s performance as Hanna Schmitz is academy-award worthy. I ached for her character and then wondered if I should. The movie raises some incredible questions about love, secrets, regret, blame, and the past; it delves into the arena of being able to reconcile an individual’s actions in the past with the actions of that person in the present. Very tough issues.
Can a person change? Is forgiveness for incredibly heinous actions possible? How much are we responsible for those we love? Those who changed us? If a person will not save herself, do we have the obligation to save her if we can?
Corey and I finished watching the movie, and I realized that I had been holding my breath during certain parts. The actor who plays Winslet’s young lover, David Kross, is remarkable. His emotions were palpable and believable. Ralph Fiennes, one of my favorite actors, plays the elder Michael Berg. Fiennes, a master at evoking lost love, is restrained in his characterization of the older Berg, but his restraint reflects the character’s inability to connect with people, even his daughter.
Some have called the movie a Holocaust movie because of Hanna’s past actions, but I strongly disagree. The movie is not about the Holocaust; rather, it is a movie about the German generation after the Holocaust and how betrayed they felt by their parents’ actions or inactions. This generation is trying to come to terms with a period in its country that will never be explained easily or without pain. Cross, as Michael the law student, embodies this generation.
The character of Hanna Schmitz is both sympathetic and villified. Michael as law student realizes the motivation behind Hanna’s decision to become a prison guard, as well as her decision to accept the blame for all of those involved: Hanna is illiterate and so ashamed by her illiteracy that she allows it to define her life.
Does her illiteracy excuse her actions as a prison guard? No. Does Hanna deserve our sympathy? Yes but no. It’s a complicated paradox, and I realize that some people will not sympathize with her character at all. But this movie and the characters that it embodies, are multi-layered. The characters’ motivations are not simple, and dissecting their motivations should not be approached single-mindedly.
That being said, the movie itself is beautiful. The cinematography is stylish. The sex scenes between Winslet and Cross (which were not filmed until the actor had turned 18) are tasteful and in my mind, reflect the way a teenage boy would look upon his older lover: somewhat idealized. Whereas the scenes with the elder cross as depicted by Fiennes are more sterile, reflecting the internalized pain the older Berg carries with him at all times.
Some critics did not like the back and forth between past and present; however, I did not find the flashbacks problematic. In fact, I found the non-linear time to be one of the best aspects of the movie, much better than a voiced-over recollection of past events.
The scenes in which the teenage Michael reads to Hanna come full circle when Fiennes’ Michael makes audio tapes of the same books and sends them to Hanna in prison. Without the flashbacks, this connection would not have been as effective.
That being said, criticism of the movie in general ran the gamut. Although Winslet received several awards for her performance, some critics were exceedingly sharp in their reactions. One critic called the relationship between Hanna and Michael “abusive” (Huffington Post). Some have said that the movie is an excuse for soft-porn. Several could not move beyond Hanna’s role as a guard in the concentration camps and how she sent prisoners to their deaths. Some praised the movie and put it on their best lists for 2008.
I think the fact that Winslet won SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy awards for her performance speaks for itself.
Granted, it is not an easy movie; it was never intended to be easy. The questions that The Reader raises are complicated and Daedelean, just as the characters are. Some people will be put off by the sex scenes depicting a teenage boy and a grown woman who is 17 years his elder. Others will be repelled by Hanna’s seeming obliviousness to the effect of her words during the concentration camp trials.
I am not attempting to downplay Hanna’s role as a camp guard. But I will admit that I am more focused upon the psychology of the characters: their actions and reactions and how those affect each character’s life as it unfolds.
The Reader is not a movie to be watched lightly. Personally, I found it to be a provocative story, one that presents the audience with complex issues worthy of consideration. In its own way, it is a quiet movie about issues that are not usually associated with stillness. The inclusion of selections from beautiful literature such as the Odyssey, Lady With a Pet Dog, and Intrigue and Love contribute to this sense of stillness amidst the social unrest of post-war Germany.
If you enjoy marvelous movies with wonderful actors and a meaningful plot, then The Reader, which is now available on DVD, may be for you.