It’s an odd film that repeatedly makes the point that what we do (or fail to do) in the course of our tiny lives, is infinitely more important (to something unnamed) than how we feel, what we say, and how we rationalize our insignificance in the awful sweep of our miniscule lives. It makes this statement by opening the film exactly one scene before the movie ends and leaps between moments non-linearly that range from 1958 to 1995, with terribly imporant references to events that took place before the film begins and some that aren’t yet concluded (the NeoCon inspection of soul of Sonia Sotomayor, for one ongoing contemporary example).
That societies delude themselves with the belief that morality rules behavior is central to the contradiction that laws are far more responsible (officially) for the shape of a civilization, and that more-narrowly defined laws identify morally superior civilizations. Thus, Hanna Schmitz and the other five guards allowed their three hundred prisoners to perish in the locked church that caught fire and burned in the midst of an allied bombing attack BECAUSE it was illegal for SS guards to release prisoners from confinement. But that’s not the argument anybody presented to prevent the other five guards from being sentenced for complicity to murder, nor did anybody mention the broad legal brush used in Hitler’s Germany to generally absolve the German population of responsibility for life and death in thousands of camps nor Hannah Schmitz’ late-breaking sole indictment for three hundred particular murders. We were only following (her) orders. Legal Justice isn’t only blind, it’s also deaf, smells bad, it’s unfeeling, and it is profoundly stupid.
There is a wry cynicism running through the film that allows the five guards to claim that Schmitz drafted the incineration report, which every one of them signed…and Hannah was, perhaps, the only closeted illiterate who ever wrote a detailed report in the whole of human history; more ashamed to confess her illiteracy than her legally sanctioned multiple-murder. The only heroic aspect of this piece is the character flaw of suicidal self-interest, which is aggrandized beyond all recognition: Moral SNAFU. Gezundheidt!
Born in 1922, she joined the SS in 1933. Michael Berg looked the same to me in 1958 (at 15) as in 1966. Hannah’s obssessive/compulsive behavior is understated everywhere in the film, and acts as the unspoken reason for her inability to unlock the doors of the church allowing chaotic prisoners to flee a nice, orderly fire.
These are oddly unbalanced inconsistencies in the way the story is told, that culminate in the righteous indignation of the sole surviving prisoner-survivor of the church fire, whose contempt for Michal Berg is just as unjust and misapplied as the immoral innocence/ignorance that abounded in Nazi Germany. But the most unsupportable personal failure belongs to Michael Berg whose inability to tell the truth condemned Hannah to spend her final twenty years in prison. He complied with a lie that cost the life of the first woman he’d ever loved. I have no idea why he’d do that, but the cynical tone of the film states unimplicitly that the things we do and fail to do (like forgive) are infinitely more consequential than how we claim to feel about them.
This movie can’t have it both ways. I respect the people who made it, and abhor the taste it leaves in my heart; justifying scapegoating, reconciled to apathy, comfortable with injustice, and content to paint the laws of human nature with the broadest of cynical brushes.
Soldier’s Girl and Johnny Got His Gun address these very same issues far more directly, and both films tear the audience to bits with far less pointless abandon. War Made Easy, The International, Lord of War and Fog City Mavericks have taught me, belatedly, that humanity is the primary target of war on anything. Modern warfare is increasingly waged on civilian populations. Compliance with abhorent orders (and laws) and the banal procedures of abominable business-as-usual is personal self-abomination. I already knew those things.
The Reader is a well-made film that raises ineffectualism and the vacuum left by atrophied humanity to new heights of artistic accomplishment in our collective worship of despair. It meant to address war criminality from the perspective of the children of war criminals; children who come to recognize their parents’ sociopathology. It doesn’t do that well enough. The resulting film strikes a compromise between good and evil that arrived in theaters at a most propitious time to complement our renewed bewilderment at ongoing atrocities committed in the name of freedom, security and apple pie.
What would I do if three hundred women were burning alive in a church? What would I do if the woman I’d loved were about to be burned for obeying an unjust law? What would I do if license to waterboard suspects gave me free rein to terrorize terrorists?
25JUL09 — Second thoughts:
The Reader is largely a film about the dire consequences of failure to follow conscience. It’s a study of the causes and results of inaction more frequently than is evident in a couple of viewings. It’s a film that keeps growing on me; conversely, A Time To Kill goes straight to the diametrically-opposite place, highlighting conscience over law, with several carefully-constructed windows of insight into various kinds of legal-system-cheats; NAACP prejudice, politically-motivated prosecutor conspiracy with Mississippi zeitgeist (and no 1996 spotlight on media-manipulation in the pre-911/post-OJ showtrial platform). A Time To Kill is also overloaded with a ton of Hollywood cheats; an enormous cast of really-pretty actors, muttering, visual delights and carefully censored violence combined with incredibly-clunky stereotypes and powerful afterthrobs of feel-good confidence in a system that only works to perpetuate the glory of Hollywood endings. It’s an extremely well-designed, subtly-didactic, propaganda film that is far less interesting to think back upon than was The Reader.