Film Reviews The film "The Reader"

The film "The Reader"

I have not yet read the book.  After seeing the film, I definitely want to read the book.  Films capture the essence of great books but not all the nuances, intricacies and colour expressed in words.  Nevertheless The Reader is a brilliant film, probably the best film of 2008.

It looks at the holocaust from a completely new perspective, the point of view of one who colluded with the Nazi regime. Hanna Schmitz is an ordinary human being who joined the SS, not for any ideological reason, but because she needed a job. And because it was her job, she did not question the functions that she was asked to perform.  The only actions of a personal nature that she made arose out of a desire to protect the weak and the young. She admits to having done what was required of her with no sense of having done wrong; she was doing her duty.  She is the common human being, an ordinary citizen, one who obeys the dictates of her society.  She represents all of us who lived under apartheid passively colluding with the government against ourselves in order to survive.  So she feels no guilt.  She is ashamed only of her illiteracy and she will not admit to it even if it will save her from a long prison sentence.  She pays for her activities as an SS guard, not out of feelings of guilt or contrition but because she cannot reveal what to her is a terrible personal failing.

Michael Berg, the young boy with whom she has an affair, falls in love with her and is ashamed when he discovers that she was an SS Guard.  When she is sentenced, though he knows the truth, he cannot save her. Is it because he cannot destroy her self-esteem by exposing her as an illiterate?  Or is this a rationalisation?  Is he ashamed of having been involved with an SS Guard and cannot expose himself as her lover.  Just as she pays for her involvement with the SS, he pays for his involvement with her and tries to expiate his guilt by making audio tape recordings of books that he sends to her. Using these recording and the books on which they are based, she teaches herself to read and in the end becomes the reader that she has always wanted to be.  When she has to leave prison, Michael Berg comes at last to see her and tells her of a job and a flat that he has found for her.  But what he offers is cold comfort and despite her great triumph in becoming literate, his rejection of her reduces her from a lover to an SS Guard and the books become the means to expiate her sins.

A human being is a multi-faceted being because s/he lives in a socio-political set-up in which personal needs are often in conflict with social needs.  Hanna Schmitz is the kind of victim that ordinary people living under oppression become. The work that they do contributes to oppression and it is difficult for them to be the caring, loving people they are.  They live with strong feelings of guilt and confused values.  In Hanna’s case being illiterate was shameful; being an SS Guard was not.  If it had been known that she was illiterate, she would have lost the status acquired as an SS Guard. In the end she does become literate, but she is living under different socio-political circumstances and the literacy that may have enhanced her situation in the 1940s, makes no difference in a world in which collusion with Nazism is a crime against humanity.

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