Monday, August 31, 2009

The Reader -- far worse than I'd imagined

Wound up seeing it Saturday night. Had no desire, but Soo put it on our Netflix queue for some reason. It was for worse than I'd imagined.

Look at just the first 10 seconds of this trailer. A wealthy Jew in a large Manhattan apartment that must cost several million, handsomely appointed with art and furniture. A stern look on her face, arms and legged crossed. She's closed off and in control. A German, played by Ralph Fiennes, is bent over with his elbows on his knees. He's embarrassed and doesn't know quite how to begin his plea. The contrast is made even more striking by two shots missing from the trailer. Her face is shown in extreme close up, cutting off the top of her head and bottom of her chin, so that she dominates the screen. The camera cuts quickly back to Fiennes, palpably smaller, fragile. A very powerful Jew and a very meek German. The Jew, in this case, is a Holocaust survivor, and Fiennes is there to represent a Nazi guard. It's hardly typical of survivors that they are rich (even for those who have written memoirs), or for their Nazi guards to have been illiterate. An even greater inversion: the guard has committed suicide, but here the survivor continues on without any noticeable effects. She speaks of the sentimental value of a tea tin, not of fear and death. In order to elicit sympathy for the poor, unfortunate Nazi guard who was just a victim of her illiterate circumstances -- and how could an illiterate understand the moral weight of mass murder? -- the film inverts everything.

Though the intention isn't to trample on the memory of the Holocaust, by such inversions the film recreates the very same arguments about powerful Jews and weak Germans that led to the Shoah. Humanizing the Nazis is important firstly because the Holocaust didn't need monsters. Human beings with human failings and only good intentions so far as they could understand were enough.

In fact, my mother spent some time in Germany a little bit after the time of the film's trial. Germans were still very much in denial, convinced that "ordinary Germans" were completely unaware. The film is, in that simplest of ways, without having to resort to selecting unrepresentative cases, inaccurate. It assumes the moral weight of the Holocaust needs only allusion, but it was and is still debated. Not only are there still deniers of the crudest kind, but also those who wish to lock the Shoah in the distant and best forgotten past, who don't want to deal with the implications or how to make this world safe for Jews. Without a real, honest, and cutting portrayal of the suffering its heroine knowingly caused, The Reader cannot earn for her or for itself the redemption and sympathy it seeks.

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