Monday, February 23, 2009
The Reader controversy
I finally watched The Reader last night. I was initially reluctant to see the movie, after it was harshly condemned by Ron Rosenbaum over at slate. But I did end up watching it, and since then I can’t stop thinking about it. The movie is incredibly depressing. Yes, it is sad because it deals with the Holocaust. But, it is also sad because it shows how individual flaws and fears can be used for the most destructive of ends. And how the past, and the guilt it induces, is something we never escape. The movie is less about the holocaust, then it is about consequences of the Holocaust, and about morality as determined by the interlocking of individual demons and collective influence.
First off, I have to say that I don’t think an attempt to understand the perpetrator of a crime is an attempt to exonerate them. Many critics argued that by using Kate Winslet, particularly in the sexualized way she was used, the filmmaker was trying to make a Nazi character palpable , romanticizing her even. I disagree. I don't think the affair between Hanna and a young Michael Berg was a depiction of sweet first love. For me, it was an example of a highly sexualized relationship based on co-dependency and disturbing power relations. The affair with this young boy, is the initial indicator of Hanna’s emotionally stunted character. She chose him because he was impressionable enough to love her. She used her body because that was all she had to give. While Hanna tries to control the relationship sexually, she is always painfully aware that Michael is smarter than her. Hanna’s illiteracy and her poverty is a source of lifelong shame, a shame, in my opinion, that is only exacerbated by the presence of this young boy with all the potential in the world.
In the end of the movie, when Hanna was asked what she learned after all her years in prison, she replied I learned to read. Critics were angered that Hanna felt more shame at being illiterate than at sending hundreds of women to their deaths in the camps. And people should be angry, it made me very angry watching it. And that’s the point. This movie is not about the wonders of literacy. It is about the complexities of human relationships, with each other and with society as a whole. Michael never came to visit Hanna in prison, and never tried to convince her that hiding her secret was less important than lessening her punishment. Her whole life Hanna was taught to keep her illiteracy hidden. It was an insecurity that made her feel constantly excluded . In fact, after all her years in prison, she probably thought that by revealing her ability to read Michael, he might deem her worthy to love again.
Hanna was not a person predisposed to true cruelty. Yes, she could be calculating at times, even cold, but that is a part of all of our natures. Showing her kinder moments with her young lover was not intended to redeem her, nor was showing her learning to read redeeming, it just makes her a real person. And a real person who can commit such horrific deeds is far scarier than a heartless monster. When she became a Nazi, Hanna's instincts probably told her what she was doing was wrong, but the world she lived in told her she was right. In contrast, to her treatment as an outcast before, as a Nazi, Hanna was promoted, respected by her peers, and entrusted with a sense of responsibility to her job and to her country. At the trial, she seemed exasperated at the questioning, because in her simple mind, she did just what the others did.
The movie in no way denies the reality of events of the Holocaust, in fact Hanna’s role was openly revealed and condemned in her trial. The fact that her young lover still has affection for her, despite being disgusted by her actions, speaks not to her innocence, but to a sad truth, that before they were participants in the Holocaust Nazis were real people. And it is these same real people, capable of intimacy and affection, remorse and shame, that performed some of the most monstrous acts in history.
The movie made me think of that famous psychological experiment where a man in a lab coat instructs participants to shock people. The man in the lab coat encourages them, tells them its o.k., while the "shocked" person, hidden behind a wall, cries out in pain with each shock. The shocker hears them, but he is encourage further by the man in the lab coat, go on the man says, you can't stop the experiment now. Of course, the person can stop the experiment, they can just get up and walk away. In the testing groups, this case was always rarest.
Was Hannah different then these people? Is Hannah different then an executioner told to flip the switch by the state? Or a soldier told to kill in war time? Every solider is programmed to become numb to murder, trained to hate the enemy, and convinced that it is their responsibility to serve their commanders. Killing is not a source of shame, the real shame is in not doing what you're told. Many viewers were horrified upon learning Hanna had her victims read to her before sending them off to die, that she used them this way. But, perhaps for her, this was just a ritual, like the last meal. Maybe it was her way of normalizing what she did.
There are many degrees of cruelty. No one wants to think we have a Hannah in us. But throughout history, time and time again, people willingly take part in war, torture, genocide, and murder. More often we take part in even everyday forms of complacency; the factory worker that doesn't tell anyone about the poison peanut butter, the bystander that passes an injured man on the street, we all do it. Hanna is not meant for you to sympathize with, though in some ways you do. She's there to make you think about how normal people can do terrible things.
At one point a law student in Michael's class addresses the hypocrisy of putting the five women on trial, while the whole country was complacent, while the whole country deserved to be indicted. Hanna was merely one person in an entire country of people, who all contributed to mass-murder, who contributed both in their actions and in their passivity. I don't think this movie was revisionism. I think for the Holocaust to never happen again, movies like this are necessary.