Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Reader and Revisionism?

One of the nice things about being back in the States is the fact that I can go to the movies. The theater on base only shows one movie a night (or two on weekends), and it's a different film every time so it really takes some luck and lots of planning to see a movie I want to see. Larger cities in Europe have theaters that show only English films, which I generally take advantage of when I go on my trips during four days. Of course, as far as movie-going is concerned, I kind of came to the States at a bad time - there's not much on that I want to see.

I went to see The Reader last week with my mom, and then this week noticed this post on Racialicious about Defiance and the portrayal of Jews in film. The writer also addressed Holocaust films, and specifically discussed two of the most recent ones, Valkyrie and The Reader. One of the articles he linked to was also especially interesting. The author, Ron Rosenbaum, argues that films like The Reader and Valkyrie are trying to rewrite history and more or less excuse the German people for the Holocaust while placing the blame on a few high ranking Germans. Valkyrie, for example, turns von Stauffenberg into a hero when really he was just as anti-semitic as any other powerful German. He tried to kill Hitler because he didn't think he could win the war, not because he disagreed with his other policies.

His argument about The Reader is that it in ways tries to excuse Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet's character, due to her illiteracy, and that the film tries to pretend that ordinary people didn't know what was going on. I'm not sure if I quite agree with his assessment in that respect, but certainly as he points out, the fact that her illiteracy was used to make her sympathetic is problematic.

I, however, got a slightly different message from the film. I didn't think that the film was trying to say that no one knew what was going on; rather, I felt like it was saying that everyone was guilty but a few became scape goats for everyone else, as the one student said during the trials. All six of the guards were guilty, they all participated but Hanna received the most punishment. Similarly, all of Germany was more or less aware of what was going on, saw their neighbors disappearing but said nothing. Everyone was culpable but only a few citizens were selected to pay for what the entire country had done.

Additionally, Rosenbaum makes the argument that Schmitz was completely unrepentant. I'm not sure if I agree. I think it all comes down on how to interpret the statement that she makes towards the end of her prison term (it's been over a week, and IMDB didn't have the line I was looking for so the wording might be off): "You want to know if I'm sorry? The people are dead, it doesn't matter how I feel or if I'm sorry." Obviously, this could mean she doesn't care about what she did. On the other hand, couldn't it also mean that she is sorry but she doesn't think she has the right to talk about her emotions or feelings because as she said, her regret now won't bring them back? Hanna never talks about her emotions in the film so it would be rather uncharacteristic of her now to share them. Given her messed up pride, even if she felt sorry, maybe she didn't want to say it to others, thinking it was a personal matter, and that it would sound false if she said since it would be what Michael wanted to hear.

Still, there are definitely some issues with the film and the story in general. I'd read the book a year or two ago after seeing it recommended somewhere, and I honestly was kind of apathetic to it. I'd heard it was this great novel and yet when I was done, I had a kind of "and?"/ "so what?" reaction to it.

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