Friday, December 26, 2008

"The Reader": new film about WWII "guilt" becomes a paradigm for moral debate


I visited the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau about 30 miles from Krakow, Poland on a sunny day, May 25, 1999. I had rented a taxi from the train station for the day for less than $100 to spend the morning there (and then visit the Salt mines). I even remember the night train “East” from Berlin, and then many stops on the way, and the laggard travelers on the train in the early morning.

There were serious issues back home, which I won’t go into now, and it was questionable that I should have made the prepaid trip to Europe. But I did, and I recall going through the artifacts: the shoes, the wigs, and worse. I was acutely aware that had I lived in that part of the world in the 1930s or early 1940s, I might well have wound up there. The ruling ideology had no use for someone “like me” who would not justify what he consumed by reproducing. It sounds horribly callous now, but in the 1930s, for people who lived under Nazism (and some who live in any extremist or totalitarian system), it sounded like any other “moral” rationalization to achieve some desired order.

In Stephen Daldry’s new film, “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company, 122 minutes, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink) the male protagonist, who is a genuine hero, walks through the ruins as a law student at age 23, in 1966. That particular scene gave me a real case of déjà vu, and brought back everything going on in my life in 1999. I felt like I was Michael Berg myself for five minutes. The young Michael Berg is played quite skillfully by David Kross, himself only 18 now. Earlier in the film he is 15, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, but note there were subtle visual “pre-production” preparations required of the actor to even mature a bit at 23 (just watch carefully). Actors go through a lot, even with their own bodies. The middle aged Berg (from 1976-1995) is played by the veteran and grown-up Ralph Fiennes, who looks a bit gaunt, and doesn’t change that much from age 32 or so to 52.

I want to divert myself for a moment here and just mention one of Ralph Fiennes other “socially” charged films, “The Constant Gardener”, from 2005 (Focus Features, dir. Fernando Meirelles, where Fiennes plays diplomat Justin Quayle and tries to get his wife (Rachel Weisz) from investigation corporate misdoings, out of fear that doing the right thing publicly will bring harm to him and the family. That sort of moral double standard comes back in this film, and seems to mark much of Fiennes’s career.

The story jumps back and forth in time, but nevertheless the film (“The Reader”, that is) has the definite “beginning, middle and end” which frames all the moral relativism, and there is plenty of it. In the middle, Berg is an idealistic and verbal law student, attending a law school seminar in Heidelberg taught by a Holocaust survivor. The professor lectures on the difference between “morality” and “the law” and stresses that “the law” must always remain narrow (much as Jeffrey Toobin always says on CNN about American law). Now, the seminar students are supposed to attend a War Crimes trial of a number of female guards from Auschwitz, one of whom is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). The trial has come about because of a book written by one of the survivors of a particularly horrific incident. The trouble is, Berg has personal history with Hanna, and he knows information that might get her acquitted or a lighter sentence. And she is too ashamed of her real secret to let go. There is a scene where they meet, and most of it seems "deleted", which almost seems like a screenwriting ruse to prevent premature spoiler; I think we should have seen the actual conversation. (I'll bet it is on the DVD.)

Before getting back to the story, I wanted to note another point about “morality”, which did affect the law in West Germany, at least, after WWII. If someone participates as a soldier or employee in an organization that commits a crime, is the person personally responsible for the crime? That’s complicated in American law, and the point is explored here even for War Crimes trials. It figures into the verdict in some technical ways, and her secret would have mattered. My own personal feeling has always been, you share the karma of any group you depend on. One of the law students has an outburst in the seminar, asking why the S.S. guards didn't just kill themselves rather than contribute to the Nazi crimes and inherit their guilt.

Anyway, that takes us to the first act of the film (nearly half of it), which is the 1958 backstory. As a teenage boy, Berg was sick, vomiting and collapsing in the winter rain, when Hanna took him home. He would recover quickly enough from scarlet fever, and Hanna would befriend him. The intimacy is almost accidental at first, but grows. I don’t know if the affair was illegal according to West German law at the time, but it would be in many states in the U.S. But Berg does not seem “victimized”; he seems able to master the situation, for better or worse. Hanna seems to be bringing him out of vulnerability (anathema in the German society in which Hanna had grown up) into physicality and virile manhood, and this, on the surface, seems like an immediate virtue. Soon Hanna taps into his intellect (always his inborn strength), and he starts reading books to her, which is a clue to the secret, and to the movie’s paradoxical third act. If the behavior (particularly Hanna's) in the sequences seems immoral or offensive to some, it needs to be put into perspective of the real moral issues in the courtroom drama of the film’s second act – and all this makes the “moral structure” of the film quite interesting. This turns into a “meta-film” – an exercise on how we should think about film as a moral medium. The film also bears comparison to "Doubt" (from Weinstein's separated company Miramax) reviewed here Dec. 16.

The last act of the film has the lawyer Berg sending tapes to Hanna, who spends her remaining 22 years in prison until she dies. There is a closing of circle of karma here.

The film played to a 2/3 full large auditorium on Friday afternoon (3 PM) December 26 at the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax Virginia. Despite the gravity of the material, the film may do very well at the box office.

I wrote a screenplay short once about a substitute teacher who is accused of an improper relationship with a student, which may not have “actually” happened (the screenplay is not explicit physically) and the teacher’s imprisonment (which becomes harrowing, just as in this film) may be unjust. Nevertheless, the student benefits, publicizing the teacher’s music and his own career, where the teacher soon dies in prison of medical problems. That set up is roughly similar to this movie in some ways, and yet when a principal (where I subbed) found it on my website, I got in trouble – over being connected (perhaps by personally resembling the character too much -- the new “fiction” problem) to an idea, a potentiality, something that could happen in a parallel universe perhaps. This is, after all, all meta-talk.

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