Can’t Read It Out Of A Book

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  In the New Yorker Anthony Lane called the film version of The Reader “dramatic roughage”.  Rex Read, in an advert pull quote, used the phrase “one of the most uplifting films of the year”.  Wikipedia holds that the main theme has to do with how Germans have struggled to come to terms with the holocaust and what it did to postwar intergenerational tension. 

  That’s not what I got out of it. At all.  Or rather, I guess I buy the above, but was nearly overwhelmed by something else.

  For me it was a deeply troubling personification of Hannah Arendt’s observation that the perpetrators of the holocaust were in no way special.  She called it the “banality of evil”. In fact, by either deliberate allusion or fortuitous coincidence, the main protagonist’s name is Hanna(h).  Hanna Schmitz. Late in the book one even learns that Frau Schmitz became familiar with Arendt’s reportage of the Eichmann trial which led to the coining of that chilling phrase.

  Frau Schmitz was a simple person who could not read and was ashamed of that fact.  The shame led her to quit good jobs twice so as to avoid promotions and discovery.  The first led her to take work as a guard for the SS at a concentration camp.  The second to recall the first and leave her then current circumstance and the life of a young lover.

  From the moment we meet her (which in story sequence is 1958) Schmitz appears to be a joyless working woman.  Her apartment is quite spare and she works as a conductress on a streetcar.  The highly publicized eroticism of her chance encounter and subsequent affair with fifteen year old Michael Berg is diversionary. Years later the mature man, our narrator, looks back and realizes that she’d had a “seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of her body”.

  The story takes its name from her perusal of literature by a variety of means for first, other attempts at escape, but later for insight. She becomes absorbed, as do we… 

  Several years after her disappearance, Michael learned that her (literary and then physical) departures were not from the workaday world but instead from the memory of her complicity in the deaths of 300 innocents in the camps.  There could though be no real escape.  “…escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere”.

  During her trial we watch as she, lone among her group of defendants,  subconsciously struggles to understand why she did not unlock the doors of a burning church in which women and girls were penned.  She had been instructed to keep order and that was what she had done.  It had been her job.  “What would you have done?” she asks the judge who did not respond.  For himself or us.

  One can only say what one thinks one would have done in a hypothetical situation.  It is easy to be heroic from several points of remove.  Look only to Cambodia and Rwanda and Srebrenitca for subsequent episodes of horror in which multitudes of common people chose not to break rank. 

  Just before her scheduled release from prison, Schmitz tells Michael that “no one understood me…and when no one understands you then no one can call you to account… Not even the court…But the dead can. They understand.  Here in prison they were with me a lot.  They came every night, whether I wanted them or not.  Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.”

  By that time she had taught herself to read and as indicated above had read the likes of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Arendt.  She learned that the dead were many more than 300 and decided that if they understood she would join them to finally thus enable her own understanding.  She hanged herself. 

  Only the film could be called uplifting and then only in the narrowest of senses.  At the end of the movie (not the book) Michael begins to attempt to remove some of the distance between his daughter and himself by taking her to Hanna Schmitz’ grave and initiating a cathartic dialogue.

  So, for his daughter there could perhaps be some measure of understanding.  But not for us.  It has happened again.  And again.  And again.

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