***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***
Since 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):
“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”
I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.
Having re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.
Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:
“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”
The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says
“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”
Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.
There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):
“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”
Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):
“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”
The prison manager tells Micahel:
“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”
To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.
It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.
The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.
The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another’s shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz. In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.
Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:
“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”
This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.