It never crossed my mind that I would ever speak or write negatively about the work of a fellow filmmaker. But when it comes to the topic of the Shoah, I feel like I have to speak my mind -- as both a Jew and a Sabra.
The other day I was watching Stephen Daldry's film The Reader with my best friend and producing partner, Marc Frydman. His grandmother was a survivor of the camps. When it was over Marc seemed both saddened and shocked. The movie, he felt, served to diminish the suffering of the Jews and went toward not a nullification of Nazi behavior, but certainly a mitigation of it.
The Reader traces the relationship through the years between a female Schutzstaffel (SS) guard and a man whom she seduced when she was in her mid-thirties and he was but fifteen. It's an exceptionally well-made film. The performances, especially Kate Winslet's as Hanna, are unique and nuanced. It may even take home an Oscar or two next weekend.
Which is the problem.
The audience, many of them young people uneducated about the Holocaust, will take as fact what they see on screen. And that would be a damn shame. For this film gives ammunition to Holocaust negationists, to the Archbishop Williamsons of the world, to the people who would tell us that the Shoah is a mass exaggeration.
Ron Rosenbaum has already written a brilliant piece in Slate, taking the film to task for more or less exonerating the German population for their part in the Final Solution. Several others have written about the inappropriateness of trying to solicit a kind of sympathy for an SS guard. Others have attacked it for using sexuality to soften and evoke pity for the lead character.
What I would like to explore are the film's versions of certain "facts" presented in the film that serve to diminish the culpability of the SS... if you can imagine such a thing.
First up is the notion that Winslet's Hanna Schmitz would ever have been allowed into the SS. In the trial portion of the film (especially well done) we learn the SS was "recruiting" guards and Hanna volunteered her services. (She was working in Siemens- - the giant electronics company that used Jewish slave labor). Hanna is an illiterate. Furthermore, her work ethic was driven by efficiency -- doing her job and duty -- and not anti-Semitism.
The problem here is every person, man or woman, who was in the SS was intimately indoctrinated into the teachings of several rabid Jew haters including Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer. In fact, that newspaper was required reading for the SS on Hitler's orders. One was not entering a job when they came to the SS. They were turning themselves over to an ideology with cult-like obedience. This was especially true of those who were entering the Totenkopf, the "deaths head," tasked with being guards at the camps.
Now, as with anything, you can find exceptions to the rule. Of course there were some members of the SS who were not educated (though Germany was easily the most literate European country at the time). There may have been a Hanna or two. But is that not the primary tool of the Holocaust denier? To turn the exception into the rule? I am sure the makers of this film are not deniers. But they are helping those who are.
Because Hanna is not presented as an anomaly, those uneducated on the Holocaust will assume her character is an accurate portrayal of a member of the SS. Indeed, this depiction leads to the kind of ignorant statement made in this excerpt from a letter to the Los Angeles Times defending the film:
"Is it all that wrong to realize, that maybe the murdered were not the only victims of that situation? To anyone watching the movie with an open mind, Hannah Schmitd [sic] is a sad victim, an illiterate working as a guard, merely following orders, either her rationality suspended and/or her judgment coloured by the atmosphere of the Third Reich."
No. Hanna is not a victim. But The Reader helps to foster the notion that she and her contemporaries may have been.
Indeed, Kate Winslet herself said this on The Charlie Rose Show of the people who entered the SS: "These were young men and women who didn't know what they were getting into."
Furthermore, Winslet quotes Daldry as saying that the "Holocaust was started by normal people."
It is a shocking lack of understanding of one of the most important and horrible moments in human history.
Also in question is the SS "report" written about the church-burning incident that is central to the film. One of Hitler's first orders was that the SS (and Gestapo) could only be investigated by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) -- created by Heinrich Himmler. Although the Wermacht were record keepers, the RHSA were not... and they were most certainly not in the business of investigating the murder of Jews (or in this case willfully allowing Jews to be cremated alive).
The Reader gives the appearance that the SS -- in the midst of fighting the war -- were policing themselves for their own atrocities like we Americans did with, say, My Lai. In France there were three cases of churches filled with civilians being burned to the ground. The RHSA never once filed a report on any of these incidents.
The hollowest scene is the one I am sure was intended to be the film's most redemptive. A grown up Michael goes to see a survivor of the very church burning Hanna was involved with. She lectures him about the camps and refuses the money Hanna has willed to her (though she accepts the tin the money came in). The beautiful Lena Olin plays the survivor. She is well dressed. Her New York apartment is large and gorgeously furnished, her art collection on display.
In the scenes preceding it we see Hanna. She has nothing. She is in bad health. She commits suicide.
So, the SS representative in the film ends up pathetic and sad and, by the way, not guilty of the crime for which she was sentenced.
The lone representative of the survivors is haughty and glamorous -- a near perfect (and negative) stereotype of the wealthy European Jew in New York.
Guess whom the audience can relate to more?
By the way, we never see the tattoo on Olin's wrist that every concentration camp prisoner was branded with (Olin is costumed in sleeves). It's almost as if the filmmakers want to make us intellectually aware of Jewish suffering but not emotionally aware of it. The opposite is true of the SS guard's "suffering."
After Marc took some time to think about The Reader he reminded me that the great Jewish writer Primo Levi once said that the victims of the Nazis, exterminated in the SS camps did not vanish forever in the smoke of the ovens. They have a grave and a fragile one: our memory.
As the years pass and those memories are buried with the survivors it then is up to the artists to tell the story of the six million and to tell it right.
And, by the way, there was something that neither Marc nor his late grandmother ever forgot. The number tattooed on her wrist: A5499.