Crazy Pills

Humanizing the Holocaust? by fluffly
February 20, 2009, 4:57 pm
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When I first saw the preview for The Reader awhile back, I was intrigued and a little confused.  I had never read or heard of the book, but it appeared from the preview that this was a movie telling the Holocaust from the perspective of an SS prison guard.  I was a little disturbed by that becuase there is no way to tell a story from one person’s perspective without creating some sort of empathy for them or making an attempt to explain away their motives.

When I was younger and first fell in love with The Godfather, my friends and I would debate over who the protagonist actually was, Michael or Vito.  We found ourselves rooting against the malicious Tattaglias and thought that Carlo got what was coming to him.  The Corleones, however, were more human.  They had motives and were forced into this situation by a corrupt police captain and the Walt-like realism of an untrusting system.  Looking at it from the Corleone lens means that Barzini and Solazzo are actually the bad guys, and you can forget for a moment that they’re all murderers and thugs.  It is a powerful movie that can make you feel what its characters feel, and that is what I feared coming from The Reader.  Would this movie, so powerfully acted by the great Kate Winslet, lead the viewer to empathize with the human side of a Nazi prison guard?

Ron Rosenbaum has an article in Slate asking Hollywood to not give an Oscar to The Reader for just this reason.  The preview alone devotes half of its clips to scenes of love, Winslet’s legs, sex, and her relationship with a boy.  That she is a Nazi appears just to be the thing that makes this particular love story difficult.  Worse yet, the tagline is “Behind the mystery lies a truth that will make you question everything you believe.”  What is it that we are supposed to be questioning?  Assuming the mystery is what could bring a person to act like this towards other human beings, will this movie expose to us a deeper truth that should allow us to see Winslet as a victim of circumstance?   In Rosenbaum’s opinion, that is exactly what this movie tries to do.

…that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

So the story comes back to her motives, her human-ness.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (since apparently we’re supposed to stay anonymous on here) and I were discussing this at a bar.  It wasn’t just a coincidence that this many people with a desire to kill others got together in Europe at one time.  There was clearly something that led to the corruption of otherwise good people, like Winslet’s character.  But while it is important to understand what it is and was that can arouse in us this propensity towards evil, this movie doesn’t seem to have as its goal an exploration of that.  Instead, according to Rosenbaum, what this movie intends to do is not claim that the Germans of this time made some conscious decision towards evil, but that Kate Winslet’s illiterate character is “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.”  What do we gain from that?

The Holocaust was not perpetrated because others were blind to what was going on around them.  The Holocaust was perpetrated because millions bought into hate.  I know that this is a blog on politics, but more generally, we discuss human behavior as a whole.  As my friend from the bar and I agreed, it is fascinating to think about what it was that led so many people to commit such crimes.  Humans no different from any of us, but they succumbed to their inner demons.  A movie exploring that is certainly worthy of merit, but to compartmentalize those actions as an anomoly and instead try to focus on them as “regular” people is not just wrong but irresponsible.

Winslet’s character was responsible for locking 300 people in a burning church, but, according to the director,

the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

By all means, let us explore the motives of those who supported or bought into the Nazi ideology, but avoid the trap of empathy.  A victim of spousal abuse may defend her husband as an otherwise good person except for when he loses his temper, but those acts of violence cannot be separated from the person’s character.  As I eventually saw that there was no glory or “good guys” in The Godfather, I hope that Holocaust movies can inspire drama or thought, without seeking to make you sympathize with the characters.