The Reader

It never fails. Ever time one of the Nazi-persecution-Death-Camp films come out it seems I cannot but draw a conclusion that the film makers certainly did not intend. When Schindler’s List came out to great praise and won the Academy Award for Best Picture it seemed clear to me that here was man who simply had a really good eye for the main chance and when it was profitable and absolutely legal to enslave workers in his factories, he did so in order to maximize his profit, an example of free market at its most efficient. When the handwriting on the wall became clear he saved a number of his slave laborers. His actions were hardly heroic, merely bankable against the day of retribution. Why was he not prosecuted and jailed? This kind of death bed conversion with the Allies breathing down his neck is hardly convincing. The single scene from that film which sticks in my mind is when Schindler worries that he might have saved a few more of his workers had he been willing to sell his Mercedes. The Reader, I suppose was to remind us of the horror of the Holocaust, Germany’s collective post war guilt and shame and on a deeper and ironic level to remind us that society’s blood lust for “justice” occurs in a similar seamless bureaucratic milieu as the extermination camps and unfortunately, on occasion, with equal dollops of injustice. Some years after his affair as a fifteen year old with a mysterious older woman, Michael Berg encounters her again when as a law student he attends the court where a coterie of female SS guards are on trial and are convicted of various crimes, with Hannah, the most honest of the lot, paying the penalty for saying the truth. They were simply executing the will of the bureaucrats in charge at the time. Hannah is set upon by her comrades for admitting that they all were required to select prisoners for execution and knew what their choices meant and because she carries a personal secret which she goes to some lengths to hide which would have refuted the charge by her colleagues that she was in command, she bears the brunt of the sentencing. See, the pompous judge seems to say, we have severely punished the one most guilty. He, a cog in the “justice” machine, thereby answers the question posed by this miserable guard who was a mere cog in the murder machine. She addresses the question directly to him: What would you have done in the same circumstances? For simple-minded Hannah, her job as a guard was no more or less complicated than her job as streetcar conductor. She asked no questions. She did as she was told and for her acquiescence and compliance was often promoted. When provided the opportunity, Michael, who shares her secret, fails to come to her aid, fails to provide exculpatory evidence. We are left to surmise that he does so in part at revulsion at what she has done and in part out of fear that he will permanently damage his career. In short, he fails to resist injustice as she failed to resist the orders handed to her. Hannah, for her part, is left to rot in jail while her equally guilty comrades draw minor sentences. Hannah Schmitz’s trial is reminiscent of the show trials conducted by our own government of the guards at Abu Grahib. Just a few bad apples the perpetrators of the torture declared to the American people, and they were allowed to walk away and they are still walking, although they dare not leave the country lest they be rendered to the Hague and prosecuted for war crimes by countries who seem to take “Honor, duty, country” a bit more seriously than we do. Hannah Arendt’s famous essay on the banality of evil bears re examination every time we consider the issues raised by The Reader. How easily under the cover of the mindless herd, the appointed committee, the bureaucratic bungling, evil and atrocity flourish. How little most of us care! The ease with which the bureaucracy adapted to building death camps from the planning, to the design, to the final terrible piles of corpse is captured indelibly in a single scene in The Reader which is reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s chilling documentary about the death camps, Night and Fog. Two summers ago I was in Germany to attend a well known international art exposition which employed a number of college students as docents. I was questioned intensely about Bush administration policies, particularly Abu Grahib, Guantanamo and the charges of kidnapping, torture and murder. The broader question the students asked repeatedly was: How did this happen in America? How indeed? The Reader is a dark, brooding, depressing film, yet is easily the best film of the year. It takes us where we are loathe to go and tells us a truth about ourselves that we do not want to know. It begs us to examine our recent past and to understand that the very worst impulses of humanity lurk just beneath the surface of placid bureaucratic waters. Don Singleton February 8, 2009


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