Spoiler alert. I am going to have to give some plot details away in this post. I mention this because I hate, no really hate knowing anything about a film before I go to see it. I would even rather not know the certificate. It’s the same with book blurbs which tell you the end before you’ve even started Chapter One. There is one blurb I remember (not saying to what) which tells you that the main character dies at the end of the novel. This is the kind of blurb for which the publicist should have been taken out and shot at the end of the blurb. (I once went to see Bonnie And Clyde under the impression that it was about developments in Scots fashion, and I was grateful to be disillusioned.)
So, if you have any intention of seeing Daldry’s film, stop reading now.
No, really, think about stopping here. The film is worth seeing, and I knew nothing about it at all, other than that Kate Winslet (who replaced Nicole Kidman during filming) and Bruno Ganz were in it, and they’re both actors I respect.
Ready? Last chance.
The Reader is impeccably acted, directed (Daldry), written (David Hare) and filmed (Chris Menges – who replaced Roger Deakins). It’s set in post-war Germany, and shuttles backwards and forwards in time between the start of this century and 1949, and all points in between. It adapts a highly popular novel (an Oprah selection), and tempts the reader in with a rite-of-passage relationship between Hanna, a tram conductress, and a boy of 15 (Michael), who is more than half her age. We know – and Michael knows – nothing about Hanna, other than that she is quite obsessed with cleanliness, and that she likes being read to, before or after making love. I defer to my very good friend who thinks that the relationship is abusive, but it didn’t strike me that way.
The shock in the film is that, a few years later, when Michael has moved on and has become a law student, he is taken to see the trial of six women who are accused not only of having callously selected ten prisoners each in their charge for Auschwitz, but of having let three hundred of their charges burn to death in a locked church which has been bombed. And the defendant at the centre of the legal process is the same Hanna with whom he is still in love. Worse, in her testimony, it is revealed that she has had her prisoners read to her, since she enjoys it, before consigning them to their deaths. Hanna, whom the other five insist was ‘in charge’ and has written a report admitting the crime, admits that she was indeed the main culprit. She is sentenced to life imprisonment; the others get off with four years.
The dilemma – quite apart from the hoary old ‘we-were-only-obeying-orders’ – for us is that, like Michael, we know that she is taking the rap for the others: because, although she likes being read to, she is herself illiterate, and could not possibly have written the damning document. Michael withholds his knowledge of this, but his betrayal of her wrecks his emotional life forever. I didn’t quite believe in the idea that someone so in love with words should be illiterate, but let that pass.
The issue is whether it is at all possible to make films which deal with the holocaust, or whether, by making anything other than a documentary (e.g. Resnais’ Night And Fog), it has the side-effect of sanitising what took place. Is Schindler’s List too mawkish? Is Life Is Beautiful offensively comic? Is Sophie’s Choice a Meryl Streep vehicle? And is The Reader, as has been alleged, guilty of making us feel sorry for Hanna?
I think there is no answer to this. Unless it is that any film – or novel – which shies away from the unspeakable has lost its nerve. And that, the more we are reminded of all holocausts, for there have been plenty, the better. The only time I have ever felt that the holocaust was being used in a vaguely pornographic way was in the closing scene of the novel by D.M.Thomas, The White Hotel. It got under my skin like nothing else I’ve ever read. And perhaps that is itself why I know about Babi Yar. And anything which leaves us impaled on the barbed wire of a moral dilemma is doing us a service. Films and fiction may make us imagine horrors in a way that is impossibly clean. Better that we are forced, I suspect, to imagine them in any way than in none.