' Cinema Romantico: Standing Up For The Reader

Friday, February 20, 2009

Standing Up For The Reader

It seems that since "The Dark Knight" was snubbed for a Best Picture Oscar nomination that it has become very, shall we say, in vogue for critics to single out the Stephen Daldry film "The Reader" as being the criminal responsible for this appalling twist. (Perhaps we should be asking why "Frost/Nixon" and "Benjamin Button" are in there rather than "Rachel Getting Married"?) After all, "The Reader" was financed by Miramax which means it was produced by those dastardly Weinstein Brothers who likely ran all over Tinseltown in the weeks leading up to the nominations threatening to conk voters on the head with their Oscars from "Shakespeare in Love" if they refused to make "The Reader" one of the Big Five.

I found "The Reader" to be an extremely bold film that never took the easy way out, provided multi-dimensional characters and ultimately refused to offer forgiveness to Nazi Germany. Many people, however, appear to have seen a different movie than me.

Accusations are being leveled at "The Reader" of forcing the audience to feel compassion for the Kate Winslet character, Hanna Schmitz, a former SS prison guard, of using its "reveal" as a way to justify her actions, and of portraying her as a victim and a hapless pawn to both make excuses for Nazi Germany and provide fuel to those who deny the very existence of the Holocaust.

The most high profile attack came via an article on Slate by Ron Rosenbaum pleading for the powers-that-be not to give an Oscar to "The Reader" on the grounds that "we don't need another 'redemptive' Holocaust movie." He writes, amongst an avalanche of other things, that director Stephen Daldry has "made a film in which all the techniques of Hollywood are used to evoke empathy for an unrepentant mass murderer of Jews."

(I am now issuing a huge SPOILER ALERT going forward.)

Perhaps Mr. Rosenbaum left the movie early and missed the sequence near the end between the character of Michael (played alternately by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes) and a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin). I say this because Mr. Rosenbaum does not even mention this sequence. Why? Probably because a scene structured to show the movie will not offer redemption to its main character is pretty darn detrimental when arguing the movie is "redemptive". Discussing the movie in such depths without referencing this sequence is akin to writing about the greater meaning of "Casablanca" but ignorning the part between Rick and Ilsa on the tarmac.

In this scene Michael (being played at this point by Fiennes) who, in his youth, had an affair with the older Hanna before learning much later that she had been a Nazi prison guard, and with whom Michael had been communicating while she was in jail prior to her death, brings a check at her request to a Holocaust survivor (Olin) who then refuses to accept the money because she will not forgive Hanna despite any reformation she may have made while behind bars. She then asks Michael if he can forgive Hanna and he cannot.

It's at this moment the movie shows it will not provide forgiveness to Hanna for what she has done. Yes, Michael sends her books in prison and helps her become literate, or, as Rosenbaum so snidely puts it, the "excitement at her growing literacy skills. Get a load of those pages turning! Reading is fun!" In truth, these scenes show Michael still has feelings for Hanna, the woman he knew and loved before the discovery of her having worked in the Nazi prison, and how he cannot alter those feelings even while simultaneously not allowing himself to forgive her for her actions. That is complexity.

Is it bold to offer complexity in a film with a Nazi for one of its leads? Most definitely, and that's why I commend it. It's not easy to stomach, I know, but it's what makes it so much more powerful and, most importantly, renders it unmanipulative. As I said in my original review, the movie portrays her as an actual human being. (It should also be noted that Winslet's bravura acting only helps to reinforce all this.)

Critics - not just Rosenbaum - have mainainted the illiteracy angle has no purpose other than to absolve Hanna. At her trial Hanna is given a chance to perhaps lessen her punishment if she reveals her illiteracy, yet she does not. The reasoning? Rosenbaum writes: "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." Here's another thought: she does not reveal it because she knows she is guilty and deserving of the punishment.

At the same time, Michael (played at this point by David Kross), who is in the courtroom, has realized she is illiterate and thinks if he presents this info to the court that it could potentially prove Hanna's innocence. Yet, he does not go through it, perhaps because he too knows she is guilty and deserving of the punishment which would line up with why he does not forgive her when given the chance at the film's end. This little piece of story, though, Rosenbaum, again, skips right over.

So why not just have Hanna accept the punishment and ignore the illiteracy angle, you ask? That's Screenwriting 101, man. It's called conflict. She's involved in the the ulimtate inner war - she has a way out but refrains from taking it.

Rosenbaum isn't done, however, and also accuses the film of "Holocaust revisionism....which used to be the euphemistic term for Holocaust denial." Except in court Hanna admits out loud that, yes, she knew the 300 people she is on trial for murdering were being gassed. How in the world is admitting you knew that it was happening considered denial (or evoking empathy)? This is proof positive these critics are seeing only what they want to see and not what is on the movie screen. (Critic turned filmmaker Rod Lurie went after the film for the Huffington Post and at one point indicated the Hanna character was found "not guilty" for her crimes. Uh....she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Are we sure these people really did watch the movie?)

It is one thing to argue against a film purely on a moviemaking and storytelling level but when you begin skewing plot points to support your own argument it ceases to be real film criticism. It's a smear campaign.

Essentially what Rosenbaum wants without completely saying it - and what so many of these other critics of the film want without saying - is for the character of Hanna to be portrayed as the anti-Christ (since, after all, she's a Nazi) which would, in turn, make the enterprise one dimensional and entirely blunt the film's impact. But it would be soooo much easier to digest, right?

But, maybe, deep down, that's precisely what people want in relation to this horrible event. It's a heavy subject, and perhaps forgoing cartoon simplicity just makes people uneasy. In an essay on "Schindler's List" the esteemed Roger Ebert wrote of the Amon Goeth character: "I wondered if it was a weakness to make Goeth insane. Would it have been better for Spielberg to focus instead on a Nazi functionary - an 'ordinary' man who is simply following orders? The terror of the Holocaust comes not because a monster like Goeth could murder people, but because thousands of people snatched from their everyday lives became, in the chilling phrase, Hitler's willing executioners." By not doing that, though, "Schindler's List" was easier to take and, thus, earned the Oscar. "The Reader", on the other hand, heeds this advice from Ebert and gets accused of being "the worst Holocaust movie ever."

Ah, and so it is. We say we want really, truly, deeply challenging films and then one comes along and we shovel dirt all over it because it frightens us. I think of what Nastassja Kinski once said regarding an early film of hers that was panned by critics: "They rejected it so violently that their rejection means something. The film touches something they don't want to have touched."

6 comments:

regaldad said...

Nice piece. But Lurie did not say in his piece that she was found not guilty. He said that she was not guilty of what she was sentenced for - that is, being in charge of the SS guards who conspired to let the church burn down with the Jews in it. Lurie's piece looks at "the Reader" from the perspective of its historiucal inaccuracies - and I think his points are well founded.

Nicholas Prigge said...

I re-read his piece and you’re correct. That is what he said. He does make good points about some of the historical inaccuracies although I still fail to see how the film “gives ammunition to Holocaust negationists.” It seems fairly clear about what did and did not happen.

Wretched Genius said...

The Weinsteins are no longer associated with Miramax. Which is kinda why The Weinstein Company exists.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Really? I didn't know that either. I will admit to usually not paying attention to the production logo at the start of the movie. These oversights are why I need an editor. Anyone who wishes to fill the role I will happily pay in $2 PBR at the bar down the alley from me.

Rory Larry said...

I saw it today, because instead of showing the advertised Laurence Olivier Richard the Third, the theater was showing the 1995 version. Screw that. It was decently made, not great. The book as I understand it (on which the film was made) and the movie as I read it: is about generations of Germans coming to terms with the atrocities of the Third Reich. You keep talking about the main character and seem to be implying Hanna but its clearly Michael who is the main character. And again the point seems not to forgive the past but to find a way to come to terms with it. Accepting that no absolution can come.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Michael is the primary character. Definitely. Most of the attacks on the film, though, were being leveled at the Hanna character in particular which is why I addressed her more in this rant.