Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Reader

I may have said this before, and I'll say it again: there is no shortage of drama and terrific stories to be told out of World War 2, The Holocaust, and the surrounding events and aftermath.  Whether it's a documentary about the fate of the Jews (like Now . . . After All These Years), a film noir take on post-war Berlin (like The Good German), a shoot-em-up revenge fantasy (like Inglourious Basterds), or a personal perspective on concentration camp life from both sides of the fence, (like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), there are inspiring, tragic, emotional stories to be told.

One group of people for whom I have never had much sympathy is the SS, who rounded up the Jews, arresting them and herding them off to concentration camps.  In The Reader, young Michael meets Hanna, a woman twice his age, but with whom he falls madly in love.  They begin a brief, passionate affair, in which we learn little about Hanna, but in which Michael learns a lot.  (Fair warning: in keeping with the nature of their secretive affair, there is some frank nudity and sexuality.  And it's rather disturbing that she is so much older than he is.)  More important than their love making, to Hanna, is the time Michael spends reading to her.  He reads to her for hours, from classic and contemporary literature, while she soaks it all in.
See, she's soaking it in.  In the tub.  Get it?  Haha.

After a few months of their affair, Hanna receives a promotion and abruptly leaves town, without leaving a note or contacting Michael.  He moves on with his life, and we meet him again several years later, when he is a law student.  With his class, he attends a trial of Nazi war criminals, including none other than--Hanna!  Before their affair, before he was born, she had been recruited by the SS.  Uneducated, working in a factory, she thought it sounded like a good opportunity.  Displeased by Hanna's penchant for telling the truth, her fellow defendants collectively put the blame on her, and she took to the fall for them.

Michael realizes that the reason Hanna loved for him to read to her was that she was illiterate.  He struggles with stepping in to her defense in the trial, but ultimately decides to let her choose her own fate.  Is her guilt less because she was uneducated?  She was "just following orders."  When the judge challenges her about her actions, she challenges back, "What would you have done?"  He is left speechless, and we wonder with him, what would we have done?  Without the benefit of hindsight, would we have made better choices than the common German?  There were certainly many heroic Germans who defied the Nazis or quietly challenged their regime, but most were silent, compliant, or, mostly, duped by the powerful propaganda machine.  Even today, in the U.S., with a free and multifaceted press, I sometimes can't be sure when to believe what our national leaders tell us.

The Reader tells this story of the moral dilemmas of war crimes and culpability, even years after the fact, but it's also a beautiful story of friendship.  Yes, Michael and Hanna came together in a chance encounter of a lonesome, middle-aged woman and a curious, lustful teenager, but the love and friendship he felt for her, and the devotion he showed her, even years later, is moving.  Her desire for literature, and her desire to read and write, will inspire anyone who has ever taught literacy.  The Reader is a beautifully made, yet disturbing and thought-provoking movie.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

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