Produced and distributed by The Weinstein Company
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Screenplay by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink’s novel
In 2005, Miss Kate Winslet (Mrs. Sam Mendes) appeared on Ricky Gervais’s Extras as a comedic version of herself, sporting a 1942 nun’s habit on a film set. She was supposed to be playing a nun who had taken up the cause of saving Jews during World War II. At one point, Gervais’s character commends her for taking on such an uncharacteristic role. She rolls her eyes and lights a cigarette. “I’m doing it,” she says barely concealing her exasperation between puffs, “because I noticed if you do a film about the holocaust you’re guaranteed an Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, ‘Why hasn’t Winslet won one?’” “Schindler’s bloody List! The Pianist!” she continues contemptuously. “Oscars coming out of their arse!”
I confess I was shocked when I saw this episode. Miss Winslet’s career in America is over, I thought at the time. Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld can get away with holocaust humor, but not an Anglican playing herself playing a Roman Catholic nun. Obviously I was wrong. Miss Winslet now has her Academy Award—and not, mind you, for playing an heroic nun but rather for playing an SS guard at a Nazi concentration camp in director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader. Did that Seinfeld episode featuring Jerry making out with his girlfriend during Schindler’s List change the rules? Or is it simply that The Reader is so deadly dull that the members of the Academy felt Miss Winslet had made sufficient amends for her earlier gaucherie?
The narrative concerns an affair in 1958 between Hanna (Winslet), a 36-year-old former Nazi guard, and Michael (David Kross), a 15-year-old schoolboy who lurches into her life when he falls sick and vomiting in the lobby of her apartment building in Bern. Taking gruff pity on the youngster, Hanna washes him off and walks him home. When he recovers six months later from what turns out to have been scarlet fever, he returns to Hanna’s apartment to thank her for her kindness and shortly finds himself falling under her spell. This may have to do with Hanna leaving her bedroom door open as she changes her clothing after a day’s work collecting tram tickets. (Miss Winslet’s career is founded upon flashing.) Thereafter, Michael takes to lurking in her hallway. So Hanna asks him to do something more useful. She has him haul a couple of coal buckets to her apartment to heat her bath water. Having done so, Michael is covered with coal dust and needs a bath himself. Hanna obliges and, while scrubbing him down, takes the opportunity to check his equipment. Finding he’s capable of something even more useful, she gets naked herself, and it’s off to the races. But don’t misunderstand. This is a serious holocaust film, and, well, a certain amount of naked candor is in keeping with the genre’s tradition. Didn’t Sidney Lumet show us women’s breasts on camera in The Pawnbroker without causing a police riot in 1964?
Hanna and Michael fall into a routine. He shows up daily with his school books. They bathe together—being German, Hanna is big on cleanliness—and then, at Hanna’s insistence, Michael reads to her from whatever books he has at hand. After the demands of cleanliness and culture have been met, they couple like mad into the sweaty evening. This goes on satisfactorily for several months, but when Michael begins to press Hanna to tell him more about herself, she abruptly disappears. He is, of course, devastated. Then eight years later he sees her again. He’s now a law student, and his teacher has taken him and the rest of his class to court to observe former Nazi prison guards being tried for human-rights crimes. Hanna is one of the women on trial. During the proceedings, it emerges that Hanna had worked at an Auschwitz satellite camp in Poland. Among other things, she had been put in charge of selecting which women were going to be sent to their deaths at Auschwitz proper when new prisoners arrived at the satellite. From these selected groups, she had picked those who were literate to read to her in the days before their departure. She is said to have given them comfort in the meantime, leading them to believe she was genuinely interested in their welfare. Others say she was only using them. Whatever the truth, Michael looks on in mute horror at the woman he had once loved. How could she have done these things? This is the crux of Schlink’s narrative, which Daldry’s film truncates irresponsibly.
In the novel, Schlink’s point is that Hanna is being personally scapegoated for crimes that many others participated in, whether actively or passively. To prosecute her without admitting this is to perpetuate the nation’s guilt and ramify its bitter consequences. The novel fully dramatizes the wholly unwarranted self-righteousness of the other young German law students as they observe the trial. They take it as an occasion to despise the older generation, including their parents, for their complicity in the policies of the Third Reich. Michael would doubtlessly be with them but for his relationship with Hanna. As it is, he’s left with the impossible burden of coming to terms with her culpability in the midst of his lingering feelings for her.
Schlink argues that vindictive moralizing avails no one. Those who went along with Nazi policies passively were certainly lacking in moral courage, and those who followed orders that entailed harming and killing people must bear their responsibility, but this should not license the younger generation to point morally superior fingers. At one point, Hanna is being questioned harshly about her role in the death of prisoners who had been locked in a church that was set afire by Allied bombs. The judge expresses contempt for her apparent decision not to unlock the doors and let the prisoners out. Looking at him in bewilderment, she haltingly explains that when the bombs began to fall, the male officers left the women guards in charge of the prisoners while they took the wounded to safety. When the church caught fire, she was confused. There was no one to give her orders. If she let the prisoners out, there would have been chaos, she pathetically explains, and besides everything was happening so quickly—people running about, screams from inside the church. Then, in evident perplexity, she asks the judge, “What would you have done?” She’s not mocking him; she simply wants an answer, but he has none to offer.
Of course, with the moral clarity available after events, it’s all too obvious what she should have done. Schlink’s larger point is that it’s also obvious what the Germans should have done about their Nazi rulers. But as Hitler rose to power and the Nazis took command of state institutions, barraging the populace with ceaseless propaganda complemented by a program of relentless civilian surveillance, what course was safely open to the ordinary individual? It’s easy, Schlink implies, for those who enjoy freedom today to say their elders should have resisted. Of course they should have. So should the Russians have resisted the rise of the Bolsheviks and Stalin’s police state. So should all Americans have denounced George W. Bush’s criminal policies. Schlink argues that these should haves are only helpful in the present if applied by those who realize that they themselves may not have had the moral heroism necessary to stand up to those in power.
This brings us to the novel’s weakest link. Schlink makes Hanna an illiterate, a condition that Michael only belatedly discovers while her trial is in progress. This explains why she asks others to read to her. She had hidden her illiteracy because she thought it profoundly shameful. This is why she lies on the witness stand. When the judge asks for a sample of her handwriting to determine whether she wrote an incriminating report, she says it won’t be necessary since she did. She keeps her secret and seals her fate.
Schlink seems to want illiteracy to work as a metaphor for the condition of Germans generally in the first half of the 20th century. It was not that they were all illiterate, of course, but rather that so many didn’t grasp what was happening to them and were thereby paralyzed when they should have acted. I don’t think this device works. Schlink runs into distracting problems of verisimilitude throughout the novel. How could Hanna have functioned as a tram-ticket taker? Wouldn’t the job have required her to be able to read street signs and other publicly displayed information? But it’s pointless to pursue this line. Suffice it to say that Schlink wants us to perceive Hanna as a victim so that we might understand her participation in monstrous acts, perhaps including her wanton seduction of Michael.
A number of Jewish commentators have attacked Schlink’s novel and Daldry’s film on grounds that both seek understanding, even sympathy, for a Nazi functionary. Their anger is entirely understandable but perhaps misguided. A writer should be free to go where he wants, and here Schlink has decided to focus on the deformation of a soul. Hanna, like many of her time, had been brutalized by state authorities to believe she was carrying out legitimate policies and had neither the wit nor the courage to question them. This is certainly a legitimate subject, and, except for his clumsy use of illiteracy as metaphor, Schlink does a fair job of examining it. Daldry’s film is another matter. He has spent an inordinate amount of his time recording the well-scrubbed coupling of the characters rather than dramatizing their backgrounds. We need to see more than the actors’ breasts, buttocks, and genitalia to understand them. We need principally to find out what had happened to Hanna to make her the way she is. On screen, we never do. Similarly, Daldry leaves Michael’s response to Hanna—beyond his obvious sexual attraction—largely unexplored. Even when Ralph Fiennes takes over as the grown-up Michael, the film leaves us in the dark about his failure to make direct contact with her after her trial. The novel has much to say about this, and it belongs in the film.
One more point. In a film that means to expose the ongoing effects of abuse, we’re edified by the spectacle of a boy actually being abused by his director and his costar. What else can we call what happens to David Kross in this movie? In an interview, Miss Winslet insisted Kross was 18 during the filming and, therefore, an adult free to frisk with whomever, whether before the camera or not. Well, I suppose that’s better than his character’s starting point at 15, but still, is 18 the age when, for professional purposes, a boy can coolly disregard the sexual appeal of a nude 33-year-old actress pressing against his naked body? Who’s kidding whom? I have to imagine that Mr. Kross’s expectations regarding what might transpire on a date have been considerably elevated, a circumstance that might give a responsible father pause, should Mr. Kross want to take his daughter out in his BMW.