winsletkosstub The Reader, a film by Stephen Daldry, screenplay by David Hare, Produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack

So Kate Winslet won best actress for her role in The Reader, a film by Stephen Daldry based on a phenomenally best selling German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, and staying for weeks on U.S best seller lists in Carol Brown Janeway’s translation. If you’ve seen the film you will agree it was an impressive piece of acting, showing the most subtle emotions through a mask of containment, from lover in the bathtub to prisoner in the dock — though perhaps we needed a stronger hint or two of her inner life. Ralph Fiennes as her teenage lover grown up, is all right, though still too recognizable as a Ralph Fiennes ™ character, suppressed, silent and brooding. David Kross, the young man who plays the boy is much better – more expressive, more obviously gripped by life, really a sweetheart — a set up for what the world delivers him.

But what are we to make of the film itself? Though nominated for Best Film it did not win, nor was there much buzz about it in the appreciations of Ms. Winslet. With justice I think.

My experience in seeing it, and in subsequent discussions and readings of reviews is that the film did not rise to the clarity and rigor of her acting. We walk out grasping not a new reality or new set of circumstances to which we must respond. We come away puzzled. Is there something inside the interesting shell of plot and action we are meant to extract and appreciate? Is this more than just a story of young love and sad discovery in post WW II Germany?

The story itself is relatively simple to recount. A 15 year old German boy, Michael, in the late 1950’s spends a summer of love with an older woman, a tram conductor, working class and living in extremely modest circumstances –where they spend their afternoons alternately making passionate love — as she directs– and with him reading aloud to her, at her insistence and her evident great happiness. Their idyll ends, baffling to him, and the years go by until, as a law student, Michael encounters her on trial for Nazi war crimes. He is sick, both because of the abandonment of years ago and because of what he is now learning of her past. As he witnesses her admit on the stand to her leading role in letting the Jewish prisoners under her charge burn alive, he realizes she is lying. She could not have had the role she is admitting. She cannot read, he suddenly understands, and could neither have written the report she has claimed, nor been in charge of her fellow soldiers.

Torn by the conflicts of condemnation and love he pulls back from offering this knowledge to her or the court, leaving her to life in prison. For years, unable to face her, or to condemn her completely, he sends tapes of himself reading from the books he had read during their summer together. With his voice and the same books from the prison library she teaches herself to read and, we think the film says, to understand, though even this is buried in confusion. He himself stays knotted in his own conflicting emotions and knowledge, and in the end can do little more than try to tell the story to his now grown daughter, passing it on to another generation.

The great problem for the American viewer, who has not read the book, is that the personal story – the explicit love making, the transgressive nature of it between a 15 and 35 year old –, the slender outsiders knowledge of the Holocaust, the precarious perch of presumed moral innocence, give a frame through which the movie is viewed which obscures what is being said. The experience of viewing, by itself does not break this frame.

We are left wondering: What is this all about? Can it really be saying that her illiteracy was the cause of her unknowing? Are we meant to think that her actions are somehow mitigated by her inability to read? Does Michael think this? There were, after all, radio broadcasts nearly around the clock in Germany of the war years. She was in the company of many who could read and who knew and knew well what they were doing. By 1943 when she joined the SS, no one in Germany was unaware of the war raging around them. Does the young law student withhold his knowledge of her illiteracy because he realizes it does not excuse her and that she should be punished, or because he thinks it does mitigate her somewhat but but cannot forgive her? What weighs more heavily on him – her abandonment of him as a lover, or her actions which he has discovered as a young student? Are we meant to think that learning to read means that she has learned the truth of her actions? If so, why this conceit? It was those who could read, after all, who created Nazi Germany, not the illiterate. Why is the story framed as the older man telling his adult daughter, evidently to explain to her why he had been so distant as a father?

If the core of the story is the discovery by the young of the evils done by those they love, and the confusion of how to respond, how are we to get there, to make the leap from erotic love of the film to familial and fraternal love of the actual experience of Germans?

It’s a puzzle. Though long, and deliberately told, it seems as though significant parts are missing, and as if the love making and nudity of youth ran on too long to leave room for the heart of the matter.

What is the heart? What was the author propelled to talk about? What was on his mind?

Schlink has said this:

“It is definitely not a book about the Holocaust. It is a book about how the second generation attempted to come to terms with the Holocaust and the role in it played by their fathers’ generation.”

For me, this rearranges the colors of the film. What was foregrounded now shifts to the background. What was dim is now more visible. With this we can see what the film wanted to be about, and why it was only partially achieved.

Until lighted by Schlink’s words, the struggle of the young, as a generation, to come to grips with their elders’ behavior during the war is barely noticed, swamped by Michael’s personal ecstasy and misery. Though the generational struggle makes an appearance in a few scenes in a law seminar as the generation of ’68 in Germany –as throughout the western world– howls in fury at the criminal wars of its elders, it is not enough. Though Michael’s burden is meant to stand for that of his whole generation – the conflict between condemnation and love – we are so weighted with visuals of his first sexual love it is a leap too far to understand the more filial connections of his fellow students to parents or teachers. The boat of metaphor is swamped with the eroticism of his singular relationship.

Understanding the author’s intention the film becomes clearer, though by itself it doesn’t make the case strongly enough. How does one generation, bound by lives given, love, community, judge the crimes they discover in their elders? What should be done to remedy enormous moral collapse? Is there any remedy? Do we condemn absolutely, without equivocation those who let so many die? Do we “shoot them personally” as one outraged student says? If so, do we ourselves become moral monsters, “shooting” those we love?

Or if we don’t condemn, do we simply accept that the evil of Hannah’s war years was merely banal, in Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann? She was an illiterate girl in need of a job. Being a guard for the state seemed not such a terrible choice. She was nice to the children she asked to read to her before she lined them up for transportation to the death camps. That she left the doors locked to the church in which 300 were trapped was not because she hated Jews, or prisoners, but because order and discipline came first. She could not allow, as a guard, the chaos of 300 fleeing. She had a job to do. Can we leave it there? Can we, in the popular phrase of today, “put it behind us, move on with our lives?” And if we do, are we thereby moral monsters for not naming the earlier monstrosity?

Michael is meant to stand for one response to the dilemma. His solution is not much braver than the actions of his lover, it seems. He can neither condemn her absolutely, nor exonerate her with arguments that she was the victim of circumstances. He opts to help her, to be kind as it were, as she was to the children she sent to the ovens, but without personal connection. He spends hundreds of hours we imagine, reading the books aloud and sending the tapes. Yet, though she writes him, having learned to write, he never responds, except by sending more tapes. A relation but not a relationship; acknowledging some connection while holding himself distant from it.

Is this Schlink’s answer then? Or Daldry’s or Pollack’s? Or is it just a reportage – this is how some have responded, not to be taken as a prescription? And what are we to make of the concern with literacy? Surely illiteracy was not at the heart of Germany’s failure – one of the most literate cultures in Europe. Is Schlink suggesting a wider illiteracy? A moral illiteracy? In the denser context of the book, and German history, is the illiteracy meant to stand for understanding the Holocaust –or not understanding; for inability to read human behavior, writ large, or only that of non resistant citizens of the Third Reich? The film does little to help us make such a bridge.

Left unexamined is the question which Hannah herself asks her judge. “How would you have acted in similar circumstances?” The judge responds with discomfort, but without an answer, nor is the question pursued. Too bad. This to me is the great question: Not, Are YOU guilty? But how would I have acted? How ought I act tomorrow? How am I acting today? How will most people act as society erodes around them, and what can be done now to school ourselves in possible responses? How do we build communities that do not succumb when new virulence appears?

There was an opportunity for the film to take Michael’s inability to either forgive or condemn and let it seep into ourselves and open up the most basic of all questions: How must we live? In the face of great evil, what do we do? It seemed to me the insight, left undeveloped but hinted at, is that while we must acknowledge and condemn the great evils of the past, and present, as performed by those we love, in doing so we must remain enormously humble in the knowledge that it will not be as easy as it seems, cloaked in safety, should our time come.

There is something of this dilemma for Americans today in response to those individuals who tortured prisoners being held in US camps. While blaming the privates, or CIA agents alone, as though their actions were self-generated and wayward behavior, is clearly wrong, a counter impulse has risen that exonerates them, since the orders were clearly formed at the top. Yet as we know, and the film makes clear, exoneration is not a possible path. How do we think, and what do we do, for those who ordered the torture, those who looked away, and those who actually laid on fist and boot? What do we do? How should we live our lives? That is always the question.

For all the incompleteness I felt of the film, the book itself, which I have only read summaries of, seems to do much fuller work in exploring the problem of guilt and love, generational divide and generational connection. Contributors at Wikipedia is a good place to start. Or perhaps you’d like a review of the book itself.