Sunday, January 04, 2009

My Thumb Up: The Reader

Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
Rated R for mature themes, frontal nudity, sexual content

I first became aware of the book The Reader by Bernhard Schlink when Oprah named it to her book of the month club years ago. It quickly became my favorite as well as a national bestseller. It was short; enlightening; with a Holocaust theme. Just how I like 'em! The book has been adapted to a movie that was released on Christmas Day.

As I've mentioned before, I am interested in learning about German people and society of the 30's and 40's so I can understand how WWII and the Holocaust happened. Sure, there was a cadre of evil men that formed the head of the snake, but there were thousands of people that carried out the Holocaust and millions that cheered them on. How? Why?

One of the most poignant statements made during a trial in the movie was, "What would you have done?"

Before you jump up and say you'd never do anything like that, consider the Milgram Experiment and its many variations which indicate that most of us probably would given the right set of circumstances. We are wired to obey authority and the Germans in command were experts at understanding and exploiting that.

The human mind is a fucked-up, complex mess which is what makes it so amazing to unravel. They say psychotherapy is like peeling an onion. Once you figure out the revelation of the outer layer and strip it away, another layer presents itself with even more mysteries. I've had the luxury to have spent a lot of time with awesome therapists and I've peeled my own onion pretty close to the center.

When we think of Hitler's Germany, we ask ourselves how culpable the German peoples were? Is there a difference between the non-military Germans, the army, the SS, those that worked at the concentration camps, those in neighboring countries that were overrun and conquered, etc.? If there is a difference? Why? Who should be punished? Where do you draw the line? We prosecute the driver of the car for murder even if he wasn't involved in the shooting during the robbery.

This is the crux of the movie. After WWII, people's lives in Germany resumed. Those millions of people didn't just disappear or all go to jail. Their communities had to pick themselves up, put themselves together, and move on. Your neighbor could have killed thousands. You may or may not have known it. Or they could have been involved in any of the heinous acts that were perpetrated upon the Jews in scientific "experiments." Perhaps your child has to go to school with teachers, now with acceptable lessons, that were fervent Nazi propagandists just a year prior. Collectively, post-war Germans put their head in the sand and never really discussed what happened. I can imagine that it would have been impossible to function any other way.

So we come back to the theme of the Germans. What if you were stupid? What if you were a no-skill grunt that desperately needed a job and there was a posting for a guard but you didn't know much beyond that? What if everyone else was doing it? What if you were part of the chain of death but never actually witnessed it?

What is a crime? What delineates the degrees of these crimes?
What is punishment?
How much punishment is enough?
How responsible are we for our own actions?
What is forgiveness?
Is it possible to feel compassion for a murderer? A mass murderer? Should we? Under any or no circumstances?
Are they worthy of a fair trial?
Who is responsible for meting out justice?

I invite you to read the book or see the movie and determine if you view the Holocaust in the same way after you've become acquainted with the character Hanna. She isn't particularly sympathetic, or even likable. So why do some find that she evokes sympathy? Was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

What I Liked
• Kate Winslet is absolutely amazing.
• That the book finally made it to the big screen and the story stayed true to the book.
• The morality of German behavior is shown from the side of the low-level workers at the concentration camp.
• The plot was well paced. It isn't an action-packed thriller, rather a character study, and there was a danger that it could plod along but it didn't.

What I Didn't Like
• The film seemed much more sexual to me than the book; and less of an exploration into why people in Nazi Germany behaved as they did. When the female panel on Oprah discussed the book, they focused on the sex and the "molestation" that occurred to an eager young man by an older woman in the beginning of the book. I felt that panel brought their own American/puritanical issues to the book and missed the point entirely. After all, this book isn't required reading in Germany for the sex.
• The trial scenes could have been more dramatic and revealing.

When I was little, our next door neighbors were from Germany. The Schumachers. I was just a little tot and called Mrs. Schumacher "Mach" since her last name was difficult for me to say. Mach was like a second mother to me and I was over at their house all the time. I'd get lemon drop hard candies, dark chocolate non pareils, and watch their cuckoo clock twirl and dance. I'd visit Fritzy the dachshund and Honey the fat ornery white cat that sat in the window and hissed. Mr. Schumacher was a mystery to me — I don't think his English was as good as hers — so he was quiet and smiled politely. He would return from work every day at 5:15, pulling into the driveway in a large black sedan that I can still see in my mind's eye, and Mach would have dinner on the table.

The Schumachers told my mother about how they fled from Germany in the run up to WWII. They knew their country was headed in a terrible direction so they planned their escape. He had been drafted into the German army; she was his girlfriend. One day when he was being relocated in an army personnel carrier, he jumped from the back of the truck and ran to their pre-determined meeting place. There, she was waiting for him in a gulley along the road. They made their way across Germany, Austria, and a number of other countries to finally arrive in the United States. They moved away when I was in elementary school and I was crushed. He passed away first, and we received a Christmas card every year until her death. Mach. I can still see her, too, in my mind's eye.

While I'm reminiscing, my high school Spanish teacher also came to mind. A Hungarian Jew who had been in a concentration camp and had the numbers tattooed on the inside of his forearm to prove it. He never showed them on purpose but you could see them sometimes if his shirt was a thin material or the cuff rode up his arm. It was told that he escaped from one of the camps, his brother shot and killed beside him as they struggled to pull themselves under the barbed wire fence.

The movie isn't depressing or overwhelmingly upsetting but my eyes did well up with tears a few times. It's for the thinking person. As you've just read, it made me think about a lot of people and things, bringing back fond memories of guiding forces in my life that have long since passed.

Overall, I have to say I was disappointed with the film. That's directly due to the fact that the book is one of my all-time favorites and my expectations were sky high. I don't think the movie affected me as much as the book. For this reason, I'm only giving it my thumb up (instead of way up)!


Marc said...

We are hoping to see this movie soon also. We actually watched 'Judgment at Nuremberg' Last night. Every time I watch these movies relating to the Holocaust etc I find myself faced with new questions that I grapple with. One statement from 'Judgment at Nuremberg' that stood out for me was the following: "There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves". People will always have views on what could have or should have been done during a truly terrible period. Its an argument that will exist for a very long time. No doubt I will watch this movie and be faced with the same questions and perhaps a few new ones also. I do like Kate Winslet and I have heard good reviews about her performance so I am looking forward to seeing this movie.

tom said...

Just catching up on you today. I share your interest in all things Holocaust. Perhaps because of my German family tree...I'm only second generation. Can't wait to get this book and read it. Then, the movie.