Movies set in World War II Europe are in such plentiful supply at least one New York Times critic glibly and sardonically called the Holocaust the gift that keeps on giving. Among those in current release are the fable, Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the action thriller Defiance, even the irresponsible and insulting Valkyrie that has the audacity to perpetrate the sole monster myth, that the havoc of war, the genocide committed by the Nazis was generated by one rotten Hitler. And then there are the films that look at the period after: "Adam Resurrected" with its disturbing depiction of a comic who survived the concentration camps as a Nazi commando's pet dog (Jeff Goldblum in an elastic Gumby defying role).
Of these the emotionally resonant The Reader lingers most, causing a delicious discomfort, a mix of fine acting and writing, the saucy conceit of the teenaged boy Michael (David Kross) and his affair with a mysterious and illiterate Hanna 20 years his senior, and an eternal craving: this movie is after all set in Germany and maybe what we want most is what we will never get (in some Frost/Nixon type logic): for someone to take responsibility for the past. Critics have been poo-pooing this movie for the love affair between a minor and older woman, and other reasons, but I say, look again. The authenticity of the film's irresolution explains why the Holocaust is such an inexhaustible subject.
Much has been written about post-Holocaust era emotions involving guilt (for survivors and perpetrators), victimization, rage, requisite redemption, revenge, restitution, cries for justice. Hanna (played bravely in plain face by the usually gorgeous radiant movie star, Kate Winslet) says, in effect, the dead are dead, so what's the point in dredging this up again and again. As Michael learns in literature class, all the great books hinge on someone having such a deep, dark secret. And Hanna Schmitz has at least two: the one to which she willingly admits is the more outrageous to us, that as a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, she stood by allowing 300 victims to burn to death in a church. (This detail, the church, has a poetic air. What divinity oversaw these events? Yes, let's indict the heavens!) The other, so painful to her that she is willing to go to prison to keep it hidden, is that she cannot read. How strange is the human psyche!
This odd and fascinating character -a composite of a beloved teacher and other elders -- was cooked up by writer Bernhard Schlink for his 1995 book, controversial as Schlink said in a recent interview, because of Hanna's remorseless, astonishingly cold lack of morality. In court, she explains why she did not open the church door: they would have escaped. We could not let that happen, she says clearly bewildered at this foolish question. Significantly, once in prison, Hanna learns to read. In the book, she reads a survivor's memoir. Instructed by director Stephen Daldry, playwright David Hare omitted that reading, substituting the classics, making even the suggestion of redemption impossible.
Schlink said he appreciated that alteration of his text. Daldry, the director of The Hours and Billy Elliot, both the movie and the staged musical now the hottest ticket on Broadway, examined first hand this subject of the second generation's guilt over the sins of their parents, having spent some years studying in Germany. His recognition of how complicated their position is: their shock, creation of the sole monster myth, wish to shake off the sins of their parents, erase the past and move on, permeates the ethos of the film, perhaps illustrated when Michael walks through a concentration camp site, a spectator in a ghost town, which is what we all are when it comes to the Holocaust, when he takes his daughter to Hanna's grave, ah ha, beside a church. If we are looking for a metaphor, maybe this, that the life changing affair caused the younger generation to have some curiosity about Germany's past. How tepid this response is in the face of any notion of justice! How unsatisfying and yet, how real!
A survivor played pitch perfect by Lena Olin rejects Hanna's money when the grown up Michael (Ralph Fiennes) brings it to her Park Avenue apartment, saying, "What were you thinking? The Holocaust was not therapy." Which is merely to say, that we all, left pondering the horror of this untoward history are doomed to mull it over forever. There is no rest for this story. Art falls short. Bernhard Schlink may have raised the guilt issues for second generation Germans to best-seller level in his prize-winning novel, and this film beautifully written, shot, directed, and acted should follow to packed houses and awards as a resonant re-articulation in excellent cinema, but trust me on this, no one is going to walk away and feel they have now understood what actually happened in Europe more than a half century ago. The film's unsettling power sits in my craw. The historical catastrophe, as Manohla Dargis wrote, reviewing in the New York Times, may grow fainter, but that is more a function of time, not because of subtle films like The Reader that remind us just how open a wound the Holocaust remains.