Between the Covers: Stories from My Bookcase

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Movie Review: The Reader (2008)


The Reader is a 2008 movie that I saw on cable in 2011. It was one of those films that I didn’t plan on seeing, but show started just as I was channel surfing and passing through Star Movies (or was it HBO or Cinemax?). I knew what it was about and have always wanted to see it and I was glad to finally have seen it one night last week.

Michael Berg is the reader. He started reading to Hanna Schimtz, a lady perhaps almost twice his age, right after recovering from Scarlet fever as a very young man. Hanna helped Michael get home when she found him outside her apartment fever, disoriented and vomiting. It was the day Michael got the fever. Three months later, he brought flowers to the lady who helped him get home. And that’s how their secret affair started.

But the film is not about illicit affairs or May-December relationships. No. Not really. In a way it is about how people come to terms with happened in Nazi concentration camps. To me, it speaks about judgment, and forgiveness.

I hated Michael as a law student. Why didn’t he speak up? Why didn’t he attempt to speak with Hanna and help with his defense? Was he embarrassed to be connected with her? I guess Hanna’s secret is as much his. Perhaps he was embarrassed not because of Hanna’s role in the death of so many Jews, but he just couldn’t admit that he had an affair with an older woman. But if it had meant a choice between life and death, between liberty and lifetime in prison – couldn’t he have stopped thinking of himself?

Maybe what happened to his family life was a result of his guilt – no, his resentment over himself. Perhaps taking up those books and recording them for Hanna to listen to was his way of redeeming himself in her eyes – though she wasn’t aware that he had known all along and didn’t do anything to help. So in a way I understand his decision then to remain quiet – in his mind he was respecting Hanna’s secret. If she didn’t want anyone to know of her illiteracy, then that’s her business.

Then where was justice then? Was it just to have sentenced her – a guard just like the other women, of equal rank possibly – to five times as many years behind bars than the rest? She was a guard. She was performing a duty. She made no judgment of the people under her ‘care.’ To her, what she did was not a choice. It was just something that had to be done. As she aged in prison, all alone, she had nothing and no one else. When the tapes started coming, it was as if she had a new lease on life. She had something to look forward to. And perhaps for the first time in her life, she had the drive to learn to read (and write) on her own.

But I still hated Michael. When she finally taught herself to write – why didn’t he respond to her letters? Has he not forgiven her for breaking his heart? Or has he believed in her guilt as a Nazi guard? So okay, she was a Nazi – but did she really understand what she got herself into?

I hated him when he went to visit her. To me, it was his fault Hanna did what she did in the end.

Putting her in prison for the rest of her life did not make a difference to anyone. I don’t think it made any difference to the two remaining survivors of the fire that killed 300 women during the death marches for which Hanna and the other guards were held responsible for. She could have done more good for herself, and for society in those years she spent in prison. But okay, someone had to be accountable. Someone had to be made accountable. That was her role.

But she was finally coming out. And she finally saw a familiar face – one that she might have even loved. But there was nothing familiar there. No love. Just… bitter cold. It was an obligation to be there. And he had judged her.

What was left for her? What else was there to live for?

Now this is also just my opinion of the movie. Nazi reign was a nightmare for many. Until now, many are still seeking justice. Finding closure. Seeking answers. I speak only about what was on the movie, I speak of Hanna and Michael and the circumstances they were in. I speak of their characters who could have lived in another time. Do not measure my words and assume that I am saying something I am not.  Smile