Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: The Reader (Final Version) Warning: Spoilers

Here is my final version of my review of The Reader. I hope you all can see the movie, and let me know what you think. Thanks.

Review of The Reader: Mind, Body and Morality Warning: Spoilers

Cynthia Ozick, and Mahohla Dargis, among others, have roundly criticized Bernhard Schlink's book, The Reader, as sympathetic to Hanna Shmitz for her illiteracy and for excusing her monstrous actions in WWII because of that illiteracy. While these writers build a strong case, the book, now a motion picture (directed by Stephen Daldry, screenplay by David Hare, Produced by Anthony Minghella and the late Sydney Pollack) contains a deeper substrate of themes which the reader can render out. The act of reading, so central to the themes, provides clues to this buried subtext.

Michael Berg, a 15 year-old boy in post-war West Germany (1958) is coming home from school one day when he takes sick from Scarlet Fever in the breezeway of an apartment building. Hanna, a streetcar conductor who lives in this building, comforts him and invites him inside, where she nurses him. The two begin a physical relationship for the summer. Hanna demands that Michael read to her from literature such as Lady Chatterly's Lover. The romance abruptly ends when Hanna disappears one day in order to veil her secret, illiteracy.Michael encounters Hanna by surprise eight years later while he is a law student. She is facing prosecution for a war crime while she was a guard helping evacuate prisoners from Auschwitz in 1944. Michael and his peers evaluate the guilt of their elders, and Hanna still conceals her great secret. The trial concludes, and Michael provides tapes of his readings for Hanna while she is imprisoned. He later faces the daughter of a Holocaust survivor regarding Hanna's crime. The film concludes with an older Michael revealing his affair to his grown daughter.

In Commentary Magazine, "The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination" Cynthia Ozick rejects Schlink's apparent motivation for Hanna. She argues Germany had the most literate population in Europe, yet the "plot turns on...an anamolous case of illiteracy, which the novel recognizes as freakish. Shlink, says Ozick, mitigates Hanna's guilt because she could not read the job notice advertising the factory job. She otherwise would have been a factory girl instead of a war criminal.In "Innocence is Lost in Postwar Germany," by Mahohla Dargis the reviewer says the film asks us to pity Hanna and that the film is about making the audience feel good about a historic catastrophe.These reviewers should look at the subtle clues Schlink offers.

When characters, such as Michael and Hanna, read literature, their choices, if it is a good novel or film, direct the reader/viewer to themes in those novels which are also relevant to the first characters.Michael reads Lady Chatterly's Lover to Hanna in the film, though not in the book. This is what Wikipedia says on the themes of the book:

"This novel is about Constance's realization that she cannot live with the mind alone; she must also be alive physically."It goes on to say:"Richard Hoggart argues that the main subject of Lady Chatterley's Lover is not the sexual passages that were the subject of such debate, but the search for integrity and wholeness. Key to this integrity is cohesion between the mind and the body for 'body without mind is brutish; mind without body...is a running away from our double being.' Lady Chatterley's Lover focuses on the incoherence of living a life that is 'all mind', which Lawrence saw as particularly true among the young members of the aristocratic classes, as in his description of Constance and her sister Hilda's 'tentative love-affairs' in their youth:So they had given the gift of themselves, each to the youth with whom she had the most subtle and intimate arguments. The arguments, the discussions were the great thing: the love-making and connexion were only sort of primitive reversion and a bit of an anti-climax."

The contrast between mind and body can be seen in the dissatisfaction each has with their previous relationships: Constance's lack of intimacy with her husband who is "all mind", and Mellors' choice to live apart from his wife due to her "brutish" sexual nature. These dissatisfactions lead them into a relationship that builds very slowly and is based upon tenderness, physical passion, and mutual respect. As the relationship between Lady Chatterley and Mellors develops, they learn more about the interrelation of the mind and the body; she learns that sex is more than a shameful and disappointing act and he learns about the spiritual challenges that come from physical love.

Hanna lives a physical life that is empty and disheartening. She is very good at her job, as it is a repetitive physical act. She is all mechanics. Sex for her is similarly mechanical. In war time she excelled in being a guard for the same reasons, and her life at Auschwitz was all brutality. Hanna knows that "body without mind is brutish," so she enlists Michael to read to her. If she were a heroine who changes, she would integrate body and mind. Schlink perhaps means no such sympathy for her - her crimes are too great.

We may take note that the crimes of letting 300 people burn, and assorted every day barbarism at the camp are physical crimes. After having taught herself to read, Hanna should thereafter have a full human experience of mind-body balance. The fact that she decides to take desperate measures (I won't spoil your trip to the movies that much) indicates that she may realize, as Constance does, that she cannot live by mind alone. She is now literate, but a sexual relationship with an older, wiser Michael is impossible. Now that she is stigmatized in her country, she will probably find no lover. She will also find no job higher than menial labor.

Schlink could be saying that education does not alone make one moral. The Germans who committed these crimes, says Ozick, were highly literate. One needs to be educated and aware of the consequences of bodily actions, as most Germans of the 1930's and 1940's denied.Michael, his law professor (Bruno Ganz), and peers are all highly intellectual and literate, yet they are also aware of the physical crimes of their elder's generation and in their own time. Michael's moral education in these scenes is set in 1966, a time when many more physical crimes were being waged in the world. The student demonstrations -usually physical acts-going on off camera are about that necessary mind/body integration: education + righteous physical action = just and whole human beings.

This is what Wikipedia says about another book Michael reads to Hanna in the film, though not in the book. It is Huckleberry Finn:"Throughout the story, Huck is in moral conflict with the received values of the society in which he lives, and while he is unable to consciously refute those values even in his thoughts, he makes a moral choice based on his own valuation of Jim's friendship and human worth, a decision in direct opposition to the things he has been taught. Mark Twain in his lecture notes proposes that 'a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,' and goes on to describe the novel as '...a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.'"

Hanna could learn much from Huck. Huck was illiterate and, in some ways, brutish. The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson try to "Sivilize" him, but Huck doesn't take to it. He shows humanity to Jim, though he knows it is against his conscience. He has been sold a bill of goods by the corrupt culture around him, just as Hanna and all Germans were by Hitler, Goebbels, etc. Huck's good heart allows him to be humane and try to free Jim. Hanna could have allowed the 300 to escape the burning town hall, but she did not due to her brutish sense of duty, a non-intellectual act of following orders. Germans might have listened to their hearts rather than the sense of conscience the Nazis imbued upon them. The Cartesian duality between conscience and heart is another split on which right and wrong action impinges.

Another great work, a play, Michael orates is Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1772). Wiki says this:"Emilia Galotti is a drama of the Enlightenment that doesn't precisely follow the standard French model of the era. Although love is a central theme, in reality Emilia Galotti is primarily a political commentary. The practically arbitrary style of rule by the aristocracy is placed in stark contrast to the new and enlightened morality of the bourgeoisie. All more feudal ideas of love and marriage thus come into conflict with the greater move by the population to marry for love rather than tradition and power. This combination proves to ensure a rather explosive situation."It is another case for the morality of standing up to oppresive cultures and social mores for a higher moral standing.

The Odyssey is yet another great book Michael reads to Hanna. In the text Circe and Calypso abuse men. Circe turns Odysseus's crew into pigs, and Kalypso makes him her sexual slave. Hanna does not treat Michael as a mature woman should treat a lover. There has been little critique of the fact that she commits yet another crime by abusing- and statutory rape is abuse- a minor. Hanna is unskilled in the act of reading, but Michael is yet unskilled in the art of love or physical act of love-making. This is a sick relationship based on a kind of power each has over the other. One reviewer called it Nazi Porn, but it is not that. The Night Porter is that and execrable for being so. This is a relationship that should arouse repugnance in us.

We must look at all the other works Michael reads to Hanna from the book, though not in the film. Below are themes by every other author but one.

The Slovak National Theater describes Friedrich Schiller's Intrigues and Love, another work Michael reads to Hanna, as "...a picture of bondage and loss of freedom - not only the loss of social freedom and of status - but also a picture of the most intimate and private bondage in love and passion. The themes of this great play by Schiller are power and the loss of power. Love that wants to possess the other, love that seeks to manipulate the other. Love as duty - love that can never have a happy ending. It breeds distrust, jealousy, and death." This is the kind of love Hanna has for Michael, and the Nazis had for Germany.

Cummings Study Guides indicates two themes of War and Peace are: 1. Love and compassion are the keys to a successful and fulfilling life. Pierre Bezuhov searches for the meaning of life and discovers this. It does not matter who the bestower or recipient is - whether peasant or nobleman. 2. War is brutal and barbaric, not grand and glorious.
As for the reading of Schnitzler, we might note that his themes are love, sex, and death...not necessarily in that order. He deals with how the three intersect. The sick relationship of Hanna and Michael fits well into his arc.

Keller, cited, handled the role of the individual as a virtuous and sympathetic public citizen, free from the extremes of moral and relative fanatacism. Michael and his law school peers would be of this kind.

Heine and Morike dealt in their poetry in the hopless joy of love. Heine supported the ideals of the French Revolution, and he attacked German anti-Semitism. The Nazis tried to delete him from written works, but it was this Jewish writer, along with Goethe and Shiller, who made other countries more aware of German writers.

Kafka deals with violence and persecution.

Frisch was against totalitarianism and establishments. His early works of the 1930's deal with First World War (not Second) German guilt and the origins of Nazism. The protagonist of Stiller, Jim White, is arrested on the border due to a sham passport. While in prison he writes his story for the public prosecutor. He claims he is not the sculptor, Stiller, but that is a lie. Hanna pretends to be literate and hides her past. Andorra, by Frisch, deals with anti-Semitism and racial prejudice.

Uwe Johnson presents World War Two, the suffering the Nazis inflicted, and the resulting division of the country.

Ingeborg Bachmann struggled against Fascism, including Fascism in subtle, everyday forms that still go on. The student protests taking place in The Reader might allude to other forms of oppression.

Siegfried Lenz's novels, short stories, and plays are about how the Nazis affected Germany. He was one of three writers who served as the German conscience. He won the German book trade's peace prize in 1988. The German Lesson exposes Nazi injustice (highbeam.com).

In Chekhov's stories "Protagonists are disillusioned by events that force them to reevaluate their personal philosophies and understanding of the world, and this disillusionment usually happens near the end of stories" (Sparknotes). It seems by this reference we may posit that Hanna undergoes a realization about her past behavior. Consider other literature the older Michael finds on her cell's shelf. It is the literature of the victims. There are books by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Jean Amery, and Tadeus Borowski, as well as the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, and Arendt's report on Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is very noteworthy that Borowski, author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, commited suicide by gas in 1951.

Hanna's last act hinges upon her education in moralism she attains from the above writers. Her values of earlier days, based on the idea that literature is heroic and thrilling give way to a maturity about life's meaning. She would not be reading Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel if she had no perception of the crimes of wartime. It is also not sufficient to say she makes her final decision and action based on the slim chances at meaningful work or finding someone to love her. It is not firm enough to say Michael is the only one who has a path to discovery. Though we justifiably revile the monster, Hanna, we might consider that evil doers sometimes, sometimes come to realize their evil.

According to Mahohla Dargis, Michael is a victim and a survivor. It comes out in the trial that Hanna forced young women at Auschwitz to read to her, and then dispensed them to the gas chambers (to cover her secret). Michael would have been designated to the same fate had he been at the camp. The act of reading must, after learning this, be a kind of brutal act for him. He must feel dirty for having done so. Again, intellect without a moral responsibility for bodily acts brings peril.

Therefore, if we plunge the depths of this novel and film and get into the murky themes, we see that maybe Schlink is not creating sympathy at all for Hanna Shmitz. She is not a heroine who comes to change when she realizes something. She does realize something; that is that intellect alone doesn't make a full person. She doesn't realize what Michael and his colleagues know; that is that intelligence does not make us moral. We are physical embodiments too, and we can't deny that. We need to integrate the two sides, and we need to act with humanity, whether we can read or not.

Stuart Kurtz
January 16, 2009 and finalized February 17, 2009 Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit BlinkList Furl Mixx Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

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