Don't give an Oscar to The Reader.

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 9 2009 10:41 AM

Don't Give an Oscar to The Reader

We don't need another "redemptive" Holocaust movie.

Read all of Slate's Oscars coverage.

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Still, cumulatively,  Weitzman believes they achieve a sinister effect: "Where overt Holocaust denial has failed in America," Weitzman said, "the way it has not elsewhere, these films represent a kind of Holocaust revisionism that misconstrues the German role in it, which extended far beyond Hitler's circle." (Which reminds me of another example, The Reader's partner in exculpatory shame: Downfall, which did exactly that—make it seem as though Hitler and Goebbels and a few others were the source of all evil in Germany while the poor, unknowing German people were victims, too. It's revolting.)

In this repellent form of revisionism, most Germans (you know, the ones who helped bring Hitler to power, who enthusiastically joined in his hysterical Jew-hatred and his pogroms, who supported his mass deportations "to the East") were somehow ignorant of the extermination of the Jews going on "in the East." They presumably noticed the disappearance of the Jews from their midst (since they eagerly stole their apartments and everything valuable the Jews were forced to leave behind). I once confronted a spokesman for the German Consulate on a panel in New York who was pushing a version of this line; he'd referred to a recent poll that purported to show that the majority of Germans alive at the time of the extermination had—surprise!—no knowledge of it.

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"What did they think?" I asked him. "The Jews all decided to go on vacation and forgot to come home?"

Please, let's not allow films like The Reader to misrepresent history by pretending the Germans—even those too young to fight—didn't know what was going on until (as The Reader would have it) after the war, when they learned about all the troubling things that some of their fellow citizens did "in the East."

Only then, the film asks us to believe, did these ordinary Germans find themselves shocked, shocked at the mass murder, the gassing, the industrialized killing. Germans had actually participated? So hard to believe! So few clues!

In fact, one of the most damning documents I uncovered in researching my book ExplainingHitler was a revelation that appeared in a Munich anti-Hitler newspaper, the MünchenerPost, on Dec. 9, 1931. It had been lost to history until I found it in the basement of a state archive. The courageous reporters of the social-democratic paper had gotten hold of a secret Nazi Party plan for the disposition of the Jews that first used what was to become the widespread euphemism for extermination: "Final Solution" (Endlössung), a word that left little doubt over the mass murder it euphemized. I've written about the difficulties I met with in trying to make their story into a film: Hollywood resists Hitler-related movies when they lack "a happy ending." But it's clear Germans could have known as early as 1931 (or 1926 if they'd bothered to read Mein Kampf).

They could have known if they'd read about the legal dehumanization of Jews in the Nuremberg laws of 1935 or the state-sponsored pogroms after Kristallnacht in 1938. And if they happened to be illiterate as in The Reader (something Cynthia Ozick dispatches as a fraudulent red-herring metaphoric excuse in an essay that examined the book), they could have heard it from Hitler's mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started. You had to be deaf, dumb, and blind, not merely illiterate, to miss what Kate Winslet's character seems to have missed (while serving as a guard at Auschwitz!). You'd have to be exceedingly stupid. As dumb as the Oscar voters who nominated The Reader because it was a "Holocaust film."

But that's what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: "After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator ['Michael Berg'] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy's accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation."

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn't require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it's been declared "classic" and "profound") actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: "Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder." Yes, more shameful than murder!Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you're guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it's not shown in the film. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have "unbalanced" our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it's never explained why it's important that we should.

And so the film never really questions the presumption that nobody could know and thus register moral witness against mass murder while it was going on. Who could have imagined it? That's the metaphoric thrust of the Kate Winslet character's "illiteracy": She's a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to "read" the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens. To which one can only say: What a crock! Or if Hollywood has its way: Here's your Oscar.

Hard to believe, but it's almost unfair to say it's the fault of ignorant West Coast types. I witnessed a shocking moment of this sort of deferential ignorance in an audience of supposedly sophisticated New Yorkers, many of them Jewish.

It was a relatively small early screening for "opinion-makers," hosted by a high-profile public-relations person. Harvey Weinstein, a producer of the film, stopped by to wave at the well-connected crowd (don't ask me why I was invited, probably because I wrote Explaining Hitler) before catching a flight to London, we were told.

There was already some inside-Hollywood controversy over the film since Weinstein's co-producer Scott Rudin had his name removed from it—officially because of a dispute over the release date and whether the film was "ready," although once I saw it, I wondered whether there was more to it than that.

The word was this screening was part of a multipronged Weinstein Oscar offensive on behalf of poor Oscar-less Kate Winslet, who was up for nomination for two pictures, Revolutionary Road (a non-Weinstein production) and The Reader.

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