by David G. Marwell, Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
A lot of ink — and gigabytes — have been devoted to Steven Daldry’s film, The Reader, which is up for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture. Much of what has been written is full of praise, while some is seething in its criticism. Perhaps the most vehement example of the latter is the Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum, which accuses The Reader of Holocaust revisionism because, he alleges, it means to “exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.” Perhaps I saw a different film, but the one I saw had nothing in it to justify Rosenbaum’s attack.
I am uncomfortable even characterizing The Reader as a film about the Holocaust. It is rather a film about post-war Germany and the generation of Germans born after the war (or who were young children at the end of the war). No one can claim that this generation had any first-hand knowledge of the war or war crimes, and they certainly could not rely on their parents to provide full disclosure. In the early years of the Federal Republic there were not the same efforts that have marked modern day Germany’s exemplary record of Holocaust education. Following the early prosecutions of Nazi war criminals (at Nuremberg and elsewhere) and the end of denazification (both efforts effectively ended by the cold war), there was a period in the 1950’s when there was little discussion or public education about the crimes of WWII. Rebuilding Germany (the scenes from the 1950’s in the film show constant construction) was the order of the day, and many had hoped that a final line had been drawn separating Germany’s past from its present and future.
Rather than a film that intends to teach about the Holocaust or even to portray Holocaust history, The Reader is about what happens when you love someone and discover that that person did horrible things. The film is about one generation learning about the crimes of another. The only parts of the film that deal directly with the Holocaust are the trial scenes, which are certainly not intended to teach us Holocaust history. What they do (and I think effectively) is frame the question of motivation and moral depth or lack of it. No one, it seems to me, can watch this part of the film and come away with any sort of sympathy for the accused. Hanna’s codefendants (unattractive figures all), conspire to set her up, and she offers, in the context of a criminal trial, an explanation of her actions which is absolutely devoid of moral consciousness.
I have some first-hand experience with the themes of this film from earlier in my career. During my time as the Director of the Berlin Document Center (BDC) – the late 1980’s and early 1990’s – the Holocaust was a topic taught in the schools and examined nearly every week in one television documentary or another. Public knowledge about Nazi war crimes was widespread. The depth of German responsibility for these crimes was broadly acknowledged. As the keeper of the personnel-related records of the Nazi Party and its component organizations – including the SS – I occupied a curious position in the eyes of the German population. I was the keeper of family secrets. I had routine encounters with people of Bernard Schlink’s generation (and that of The Reader’s central character, Michael Berg) who sought me out to learn about their parents’ or grandparents’ possible membership in the SS or Nazi Party. These were people who sought to come to terms with precisely the issues raised in the film – how to reconcile deep feelings of love for someone with deeply troubling knowledge (or fear) about that person’s past conduct.
As a historian for the Office of Special Investigations (the Nazi war crimes unit of the Justice Department), I found myself one day, in 1985, in the office of Rolf Mengele (who has since changed his name) investigating the whereabouts of his father, Josef Mengele. In a long conversation, young Mengele, voiced his own personal struggle. He acknowledged his father’s crimes, but, at the same time, admitted an emotional connection to him.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting that the young Mengele, or others in Schlink’s generation, deserve our sympathy, but we can certainly acknowledge that they have been confronted with a complex emotional challenge that was not of their making. And we can appreciate serious attempts to give voice to this challenge in the form of novels and films without misrepresenting what they are and what they intend to do.