The Oscar for Denial

German society is still – and may always be – in recovery, not just from the atrocities committed in its name, by its leaders, but from the silent acquiescence of the millions who lacked the will to speak up against what they knew was wrong.  To sweep the crimes and excesses of the Bush-Cheney years under the rug would destroy the American soul.  The world needs the American sense of justice now more than ever.  But we forfeit our moral authority if we do not take responsibility for the crimes of the Bush-Cheney years.

Kate Winslet’s Academy Award for Best Actress in The Reader surely disappointed and outraged Ron Rosenbaum. Amid the torrent of nonsense glutting U.S. media since the movie award nominations were announced, Rosenbaum’s objections to The Reader were far more substantive and accusatory.

In his Slate column, Rosenbaum attacked the “essential metaphorical thrust” of the film, which he said aimed “to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.” Rosenbaum decried the notion of honoring “a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that ‘ordinary Germans’ were ignorant of the extermination until after the war…”

Rosenbaum indicted “the Kate Winslet character’s ‘illiteracy’: She’s a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to ‘read’ the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens.  To which one can only say: What a crock!”

In fact it is a crock, a willful misreading of The Reader to lump it in with a genre of films which exploit the Holocaust (e.g., Life is Beautiful, winner of several Academy Awards).  Bernard Schlink, author of the novel on which the film of The Reader is based, told an interviewer in December: “It’s definitely not a movie about the Holocaust.  It’s about a generation trying to come to terms with what they had to learn about their parents’ generation.”

But Rosenbaum’s Shoah sensitivities are Manichean.  He concedes nothing to the moral and emotional complexities within or between the characters, especially in the film’s central relationship between Michael and Hanna.

Michael’s passionate affair with the much-older Hanna at first uplifts his adolescence.  But when, as a law student, he witnesses her murder trial, along with other former Nazi concentration camp guards, he is devastated.  Michael believes that Hanna has admitted to writing a report about the death of 300 Jewish prisoners, trapped in a burning church, in order to avoid revealing her illiteracy.

Michael tells his law professor (Bruno Ganz) that he has knowledge relevant to the trial, perhaps in the defendant’s favor.  The older professor urges Michael to speak up: You don’t want to be like us and do nothing do you?  Here Ganz is referring to his own silent wartime generation.  But Michael cannot bring himself to visit Hanna during her trial, even though he knows her illiteracy has probably condemned her to a far greater penalty than her equally – or perhaps surpassingly – guilty comrades.

The other guards have no moral sense.  But they are rewarded for their lies and stonewalling, receiving much lighter sentences than Hanna, who simply blurts out the truth, takes the rap and ends up sentenced to life in prison.  She admits to having no moral sense, and therefore must be the more strongly condemned.  Does this really create undue sympathy for Hanna, as Rosenbaum suggests?   At the end of the film, an escaped victim (Lena Olin) explicitly asks the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) if he thinks Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt.  And he says no.

As one of the law students in the film declares, the question is not who knew about the extermination of the Jews.  There were hundreds of camps all over Europe.  Everybody knew.  “My parents, my teachers, everyone.”  The question is, what did they do about it?  The answer is: Nothing.  As the student says to the bemused Ganz: “The only question is why you didn’t all just kill yourselves?”

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