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If I hadn't used the locution so recently, I would be certain to call The Reader"The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made."
Somebody has to say it. I haven't seen others do so in print. And if I'm not the perfect person to do so, I do have some expertise.
And so I will: This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it's a "Holocaust film," it must be worthy of approbation, end of story. And so a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that "ordinary Germans" were ignorant of the extermination until after the war, now stands a good chance of getting a golden statuette.
A deeply depressing indication of how the film misreads the Holocaust can be found in a recent New York Times report on the state of the Oscar race. The paper gave disproportionate attention to The Reader by featuring a wistful-looking still of Kate Winslet above the headline "Films About Personal Triumphs Resonate With Viewers During Awards Season."
What, exactly, was the Kate Winslet character's "personal triumph"? While in prison for participation in an act of mass murder that was particularly gruesome and personal, given the generally impersonal extermination process—as a death camp guard, she helped ensure 300 Jewish women locked in a burning church would die in the fire—she taught herself to read! What a heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer!
True, she's unrepentant for the most part about allowing those women and children to burn to death. (Although we do see one scene in which it turns out she's saved some pennies in prison that she wants to be given to the children of the women she murdered—thanks!) But most of what we see of her prison experience is her excitement at her growing literacy skills. Get a load of those pages turning! Reading is fun!
It's been argued that no fictional film can do justice to the events of 1939-45, that only documentaries like Alan Resnais' Night and Fog or Claude Lanzmann's nine-plus-hour-long Shoah can begin to convey the reality of the evil. And there certainly have been execrable failures(example: Life Is Beautiful).I've argued that most of the fictionalized efforts either exhibit a false redemptiveness or an offensive sexual exploitiveness—what some critics have called "Nazi porn." But in recent years, a new mode of misconstrual has prevailed—the desire to exculpate the German people of guilt for the crimes of the Hitler era. I spoke recently with Mark Weitzman, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's New York office, who went so far as to say that The Reader was a symptom of a kind of "Holocaust revisionism," which used to be the euphemistic term for Holocaust denial.
Weitzman mentioned three films in particular: In addition to The Reader, there was Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, which gave the impression that the Wehrmacht, the German army, was full of good men and true (identifiable in the film by their British accents) who had always opposed that lout Hitler with his whole silly Jewish obsession, when in fact the more we learn about the Wehrmacht's role, the more disgracefully complicit it turns out to have been with the mass murderers of the SS. Yes, a few Wehrmacht officers did plot against Hitler, but they waited to take action until the successful Normandy invasion, when it seemed Hitler would lose the war.
"The Valkyrie conspiracy took place in 1944," Weitzman told me. "If it had been 1941, it might have made a difference."
And then there was Cruise's character, Claus von Stauffenberg, very brave, it's true, in 1944. But back during the brutal war crime that was the 1939 invasion of Poland (the British magazine History Today reminds us), he was describing the Polish civilians his army was slaughtering as "an unbelievable rabble" made up of "Jews and mongrels." With friends like these ...
Moral: Don't go looking for heroes in the largely mythical "German resistance" to Hitler. The German resistance was not much more real or effectual than the French Resistance—its legend outgrew its deeds after the war. (Although it is worth seeking out the two movies about the tiny, brave-but-doomed, Munich-based "White Rose" resistance, The White Rose and Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, which tell the story of a few students who didn't—like the Valkyrie conspirators—believe the goal was to help Germany win the war more efficiently than Hitler, but to bear moral witness against the exterminators. For which they were brutally guillotined in Munich in 1943.)
The third film Weitzman mentions as an example of this soft revisionism is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, one I haven't been able to bring myself to see but that features a young German boy, son of Nazi parents, who lives near a concentration camp and befriends a young death camp "boy in striped pajamas." The tale is not dissimilar in saccharine sentiment to the recently revealed, Oprah-fied fraud about the girl who gave the death camp boy apples, although it avoids the happy ending of that treacly sham.
But at least they didn't give these two films Oscar nominations or awards like the disgraceful one given to Life Is Beautiful.