Mar 2009 Journal

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From illiteracy to remorse (review)

starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes
directed by Stephen Daldry
at selected cinemas

One incongruity of the Holocaust is the proximity of barbarity and high culture. Guards in the death camps, for example, would often listen to Beethoven at the end of a day’s work. This premise has influenced some reviewers of The Reader to react with scepticism to one of the central themes of the film, which is based on Bernhard Schlink’s powerful novel of the same name.

The key question is whether the life of the female protagonist, Hanna Schmitz, would have been different had she not been illiterate. For the sceptics, of course, illiteracy offers no more inducement to participate in criminal activity than education serves as a prophylactic.

In a flashback to 1958, Hanna, played by award-winning Kate Winslet, is a tram conductor who rescues a teenage boy who has collapsed, sick, outside a block of flats. The 18-year-old German actor David Kross gives an outstanding performance as the young Michael Berg, first seen as a 15-year-old seduced by a woman more than 20 years older and later as a student. The often graphic sex scenes are not voyeuristic but an effective means of conveying the hold Hanna is to have on Michael’s life. As the relationship develops, Michael is required to read to Hanna from books he is studying at school before they have sex. Her disappearance, in the wake of being offered promotion to working in the tram company’s office, leaves him traumatised.

The crux of the film is another flashback, years later, to Michael, then a law student, observing a trial of Nazi guards accused of leaving 300 Jewish women to die in a burning church on a death march. He is astounded to find Hanna one of the defendants. When questioned by the judge, it emerges that Hanna chose to join the SS rather than accept promotion at Siemens, where she was working at the time. She shows no remorse when accused of routinely ‘selecting’ prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz and is prepared to be convicted on the charge of writing a report about the church fire rather than provide a sample of her handwriting.

Michael, now certain that she is illiterate, opts out of providing evidence that might have helped her, realising that in her eyes to be exposed would be a greater shame. Years later, the mature Michael, admirably played by Ralph Fiennes as an emotionally crippled lawyer, sends Hanna in prison tapes of a variety of books which enable her to teach herself to read. An encounter between the two, shortly before she is due to be released from prison, reveals her changed and remorseful.

While some have objected to Hanna being portrayed as a dysfunctional woman rather than a monster, I find the development of a character whose life choices have been dominated by her illiteracy plausible and in no way a ‘whitewash’ of the Holocaust.

This stirring film was directed by Stephen Daldry with a script by David Hare. The acting of all three protagonists is superb, with facial expressions as eloquent as the words, spoken, effectively, with a faint German inflection. Also to be commended is Lena Olin in a cameo part as a Holocaust survivor.

Emma Klein

previous article:Vienna, March 1938: Prepared for the Anschluss
next article:Schnorrers of distinction