Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Reader: Unexpected Sympathies

I really was not looking forward to this film. In recent years I have found that I have become intensely sensitive to the Holocaust - whether this has stemmed from my visit to the Holocaust exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, or my studying of it in both History and Judaism at school, or maybe it was after watching the epic documentary that is Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution - whatever the cause, I have found it almost unbearable to watch, read or hear anything on the Holocaust, and have been lying awake at night, deeply disturbed by what I have learnt. I am not looking for sympathy or attention here, I am just establishing that I find Holocaust themed programmes/films too disturbing to watch anymore.

I was already horrified with some of the scenes in the film Shutter Island - the Holocaust is a very minor theme in this film, to the point where nobody remembers or mentions it - but I was shocked and sickened by some of those scenes. Even though they were necessary for the film, they were too much for me.

So after this unexpected horror in Shutter Island, I was incredibly nervous to watch The Reader. I knew what it was about, and assumed it would be full of terrible scenes. However, it was not. There were no recreations of the Holocaust, so if you are like me do not worry on that part.

The Reader is a strange film. It contains numerous sex scenes and a lot of nudity, and then half way through the film we see our central female character, Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), on trial for her involvement in the Holocaust. If you didn't know what the film was about, this would be a massive shock - totally out of the blue, and sickening to the core. Our leading male, Micheal Berg (David Kross), who had a Summer affair with Hannah during his teenage years, is a law student, and as part of his degree he watches a trial of female ex-Nazi camp commandents. The moment he hears the voice of Hannah, whom he has not seen for years, is truly a harrowing one. His face just drops, but not into sadness, shock or despair - but the kind of look one cannot describe in words, but one we would only see if we heard someone say they assisted the horror of the Holocaust. I have never seen Kross in a film before, but his performance was brilliant, and I look forward to seeing more from him.

As for Winslet, I'm afraid I cannot do enough justice to the performance that finally won her an Oscar. There is a widely-known "joke" that if you star in a film about the Holocaust you will win an Oscar, but in most cases that award is highly-deserved, and Winslet is no exception. She goes completely against type as Schmitz. The usually soft, English-rose, sweet, likeable Winslet that we have seen in Titanic, Sense and Sensibility and Quills to name a few, is thrown out the window with this performance. There is a coldness to her that I have never felt with her in any other role she has played. And there is a harshness so strong in her stare, that even if you didn't know anything about the film, you would have a good chance guessing that her character may have been a Nazi. Is this harshness due to what she saw during her position in the camp? Or was it an attribute she already had that helped her be employed by the Nazis? We never know. But her performance is truly outstanding - her German accent is spot on (I may have to ask a German to see if they agree), and her whole look as well as voice is just German, her Englishness is obliterated. She completely gets into character.

Ralph Fiennes does well with his minor role, and although he is not given much to work with, we do feel like he is an older Michael, and that he is a man whose life has been overshadowed by his involvement with Schmitz, to the point where he nearly lost his daughter.

There are a lot of thought-provoking lines and moments in this film (unsurprisingly), but their nature is surprising. During the trial scene, the panel ask Schmitz why she would select women to be sent to the death camps, and her response is that there were new arrivals on their way so they had to make room in the camp. I had never thought of the Holocaust in this way: the camps were a conveyor belt of death. More people were arriving, and room had to be made. It is a harrowing thought, and when she responds with this, she adds, 'What would you have done?'. This really questions humanity: if one of us was in the position she was in, working in a camp, and receiving orders to make room and send others to the death camps, what would we have done? Would we have risked our own lives by disobeying orders from the top? Or would we have done what she did and made the selection, because someone else would have taken her place and done the same anyway. Horrific questions that don't bare answering.

One really interesting moment in the film, one that really made me think, was when Michael visits one of the survivors of Schmitz's camp, who also provided evidence at the trial. She says to Michael, people ask me what I learnt in the camps. What is there to learn? Nothing comes out of the camps. I finally realised what a stupid question that is. In history, religious studies, documentaries I have watched, we ask the survivors of the Holocaust what they learnt. What on earth do we expect to hear? What can you learn from such an event?

Perhaps what most surprised me about this film was the fact that I felt sorry for Schmitz, and I never thought it would be possible for me to feel sorry for a character with her history.

This film is not everyone's cup of tea. Many have complained that there is too much sex, and that the story is too sick, but it is a good film, regardless of how disturbing and upsetting it is, and I believe it is an important film to watch. I do recommend it, there is nothing physically shown to disturb, but what is heard at the trial, and the entire storyline is a deeply disturbing one, but what isn't disturbing when linked to the Holocaust?


  1. Hey Claud. I find films on the Holocaust terrifying also. The Reader was interesting because Kate Winslet's character obviously did well in her career so taking orders was something she knew she had to do to progress. Plus it enabled her to stay alive. I guess you don't know what would happen unless you were in that situation. You are right, it doesn't bare thinking about and scares me also. It is a bit like Sophie's Choice, I don't know if you have seen it? But it is the same situation. It is interesting but very scary xxx

    1. Glad I'm not the only one. No I've been wanting to see Sophie's Choice for ages, but keep putting it off! Exactly, and she was illiterate, so every she got promoted to office work she'd have to quit, so a job as a guard meant she could qualify. Thanks for commenting!