When Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X, he received criticism from many quarters, particularly from Germany. In addition to issues of church discipline, Bishop Williamson had claimed that the Holocaust never happened, or if it did, its extent was much exaggerated. The public response was readily understandable. Less understandable were the bishops original statements, which one must presume reflect his thinking. He is not alone in his beliefs. How is it reasonable for anyone to deny such history, even as scholars continue to amass evidence after 65 years?
One rationale is even more troubling than the assertions themselves. Is it possible that by reconstructing the events so often in fiction as well as in historical analysis, we have raised the Holocaust to the status of myth, and thus compromised its horror? Myth can be deconstructed in a way that fact cannot. In the collective imagination, the story has grown familiar in a way that Stalins gulags, the Rape of Nanking, the genocide in Rwanda, or the bombing of Japan have not. When confronted with the records, these events can still shock us. The Holocaust, however, has grown too familiar, and as a result it may have become less real. History fades into literature and the movies: "Sophies Choice," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Schindlers List" and others. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the Holocaust was a unique event in human history, not a novel or a screenplay.
The Reader, released a few months ago, continues the tradition of mingling fact and story. Based on Der Vorleser, a novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film consists of two acts, not neatly divided by a clear intermission, both of which are recounted in a series of recollections by Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a prosperous but visibly world-weary lawyer. In the first act, a streetcar conductor, Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winsletin an award-winning performance) finds the young Michael Berg (David Kross), a very sick 16-year-old boy who has collapsed in her doorway. She rinses off his face and sees that he reaches home safely. After his recovery, he returns to thank her for her kindness.
His visit leads to a sexual initiation and then a prolonged liaison. The camera lingers on their entwined bodies in a way that recreates the wonder of Michaels discovery of his own sexuality. He is living out an erotic fantasy that borders on obsession. He distances himself from his schoolmates and family. After several weeks, Hannah suddenly vanishes without even leaving a note. Later, during his law school years, Michael dates rarely, and his marriage ends after the birth of his daughter. Saddened by the knowledge that the intensity of the summer romance can never be recaptured, he turns in upon himself and finds relationships very difficult.
The second act reunites the lovers. In law school, his seminar observes the trial of six former women S.S. guards, whose crimes have been revealed in a best-selling memoir by Ilana Mather (Lena Olin), a survivor of the camps. Among the accused sits Hannah Schmitz. Michael had no clue as to her Nazi past. He sits through the trial, tormented by a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. He feels betrayed by this terrible secret that she has kept from him. Revulsion at her crimes blends with the shredded remnants of his passion and his desire to forgive her. He arranges to visit her in prison, but as he approaches the visitors room, he quietly turns away. Both resign themselves to the reality that she will spend the rest of her life in prison.
The plot summary scarcely reveals the meaning of their story. In the script, screenwriter David Hare turns his attention more to ideas than to plausible narrative. His previous work in "Plenty" (1985), "Damage" (1992) and "The Hours" (2002) provides ample warning that the attentive moviegoer should be prepared for an intellectual workout rather than simply an entertaining movie. Hare deals with big ideas, not always successfully, but the attempt refreshes even as it frustrates. Not many current films can be called challenging, but this one can.
The power of language to illuminate and to obscure underlies many of Hares preoccupations. During their early encounters, Hannah insists that Michael read passages from his schoolbooks to her before they make love. He reads from Chekhov, Goethe, Homer and the writers of other classics. She is moved to tears by what she hears. Literature and sex bind them together, as though representing both the physical and spiritual communion of persons. Hannah has the capability to feel the deepest human emotions, but, as Michael discovers, she cannot read and thus cannot touch her inmost sensibility without another, a poet or a reader, to show her the way. This barrier to her own inner self may well be what led her into the S.S. and enabled her to participate in the atrocities she witnessed without apparent remorse. Her testimony about her work chills with its calculating rationality. She merely did what she thought was sensible in the circumstances.
During the trial Michael remains silent, keeping his own secret that he once loved a person who was capable of unspeakable brutality. Hannah testifies that she gave the orders and wrote the document that justified the deaths of over 300 women. Michael knows she could not have written anything, and his intervention might have influenced sentencing, but he chooses not to speak out to mitigate her testimony. Now the roles reverse themselves. His inability to communicate makes him capable of participating in a terrible injustice. Guilt gnaws at his soul. He cannot face her in prison, but he does send her tape recordings of his readings. In a moment that reminded me of Helen Kellers discovery of language in "The Miracle Worker" (1962), Hannah begins to match the sounds of the recorder to the letters on a printed page. At this point she has become a reader as Michael distances himself ever further from her and from his own humanity.
One of the texts repeated several times is the opening lines from Homers epic, The Odyssey. Odysseus travels through life with many twists and turns as he tries to find his way home. How appropriate. Bernhard Schlink, author of the novel, may well be suggesting a reading of Germanys twisting history, but David Hare opens the story up to a consideration of the universal human condition. How does one co-exist with evil on a very small planet? Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) tries to persuade his students that the solution arises from the law, not morality and certainly not from passion. While one impatient student, a moralist, argues for immediate retribution, Rohl insists that strict legal procedures will protect them from repeating the terrors of the Nazi era. Of course the seminar cannot agree on an answer.
In a chilling coda to the main story, Michael visits the memoirist, Ilana Mather, in her apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. He tells her about Hannahs death in prison, but Ilana offers no compassion, no absolution. She maintains that the camps taught us nothing, and no degree of forgiveness can possibly obliterate the evil that was done there. All these lives--Ilana, Hannah, Michael--are intertwined in mysterious ways. For Ilana, there is no escape from the prisonhouse of memory, no Christian sense of reconciliation. We all share the guilt of our species. Thats simply a fact. This is perhaps the greatest secret of all.
In a film of ideas, narrative plausibility assumes a secondary role. Some coincidences strike me as improbable, and on occasion motivation becomes a bit murky. The director Stephen Daldry, who also teamed with David Hare on "The Hours," seems at home in this type of film of ideas. Like a chief pathologist he places his actors on the surgical table and cuts deeply and cleanly so that the conflicts emerge from within. Cinematographers Chris Menges and Roger Deakins create suitably somber images, bled of color and claustrophobically cramped inside the frame.
However, the overuse of complex flashbacks, with accompanying intertitles revealing time and place, is both confusing and needless. In his musical score Nico Muhly tries to dictate the appropriate emotional responses for the action. He seems reluctant to let the images and narrative speak for themselves.
The three principal actors create characters who are living people rather than mouthpieces for philosophical discussion. Kate Winslet deserves her Academy Award. In Hannah she creates a complex character that elicits reactions of loathing and sympathy in equal amounts. She allows Hannah to remain an enigma, unreadable, neither begging for forgiveness nor scorning our sympathy. Ralph Fiennes lean face reflects the exhaustion of a man who has tried to resolve his conflicted emotions and failed. His life has defeated him. David Kross credibly brings Michael from adolescence, when he willingly allows himself to be exploited to ease the emptiness of a lonely older woman, to the age when he must make his own moral decisions as an adult.
Yes, "The Reader" suffers from its own pretensions at times. It tries too hard to be profound. But we can be grateful that it attempted much and accomplished most of it.