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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Which was why I got an angry call from the publicist the next morning after the scene I (indirectly) caused at a Q&A with the director, Stephen Daldry, held after the screening. Since my girlfriend was out of town, I brought a friend who turned out to be both outraged and outspoken about the film (and he wasn't even Jewish).

Most of the questions to the British director were polite and deferential to the point of insipidness. After all, he was a British director and the screenplay was by a famous British playwright, David Hare. Still, there was one question that turned up something interesting that few reviewers seemed to have noticed.

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Daldry said he'd had a big fight with the author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink. In the novel, when Kate's mass murderer learns to read, one of the things she reads about is—guess what?—the Holocaust. We're led to believe that she's learning about it, or at least the extent of it, for the first time, from reading Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Hannah Arendt, and is suitably horrified. You get the idea: Reading can develop a moral sense, a path toward redemption. (This candy-coated moral is probably what attracted Oprah when she selected The Reader for her book club and made the otherwise obscure German novel an American best-seller a decade ago.)

But Daldry said he and Hare eliminated the Holocaust education aspect of the novel (over the strong objections of Schlink) because he didn't want the film to seem to be about redemption; too many Holocaust films offer a kind of false redemptiveness, he said.

Well, good for him, but without that, he's made a film in which all the techniques of Hollywood are used to evoke empathy for an unrepentant mass murderer of Jews. The elimination of the Primo Levi reading list in the novel—however meretricious a gambit it is—deprives the literacy she achieves of any relationship to the Holocaust, which eliminates the fraudulent moral redemptiveness but also makes the film incoherent as a response to the Holocaust. Why should we care that she can read Chekhov's "Lady With Lapdog"?

Meanwhile, I could tell my friend was fuming. I was in a kind of state of numbed disbelief and rarely like to attract attention to myself by asking questions in forums such as these. My friend had no such qualms. He was outraged by the film, not just by its exculpatory thrust but by the way it achieved its end of evoking empathy for Kate Winslet with what he called "manipulative" nudity. (If you haven't seen the film, the first half-hour is devoted to Kate—in the postwar years before her arrest—seducing a teenage boy, whom she persuades to read to her before sex. There's a lot more sex than reading and a fairly shocking amount of nude close-ups of Kate's body. The teenager later becomes a law student who watches her eventual prosecution and helps her learn to read in prison. Literacy is sexy! Or something.)

The nudity, which I've had cause to reference before in a column on the irresistible (to culture-makers) attraction between Nazis and sex, gives new meaning to the word gratuitous. To my friend, it was a manipulative tool used to create intimacy with and thus empathy for an unrepentant mass murderer. And what's more—to shocked gasps, he said exactly that to the director in the Q&A session. And didn't stop there, calling The Reader a "dishonest and mediocre" film that used nudity to disguise its thematic nakedness.

There was consternation in the room, especially among the publicists, whose minions made sure to take our names after the screening. This resulted in a high-decibel call to me the next morning from the chief publicist, telling me she'd gotten "50 calls" from people at the screening saying how "rude" my outspoken friend was, upbraiding me for bringing an impolite interloper into the screening, telling me how important it was to "the industry" that films like this succeed in the hard times we were going through, and accusing me of everything but putting a horse's head in Harvey Weinstein's bed.

"You mean you're saying I could be the death of Hollywood?" I said, incredulously unaware of my secret superpowers. I tried to explain to her my view: that it wasn't me or my friend who was the problem, it was the movie. (She later called back somewhat contritely.)

In any case, I had thought that those voting for Oscar nominations would see the problems in this incoherent, exculpatory film. But I was wrong. Kate got her Oscar nomination for Harvey's film, not the other one. The Reader got one, too.

Please, Hollywood, don't compound the error by giving the Oscar to The Reader.

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