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.

Kate Winslet in The Reader.
David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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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