So much of the intellectual discourse about The Reader has focused on considerations about the film’s Holocaust angle. Is it a Holocaust film at all or simply a movie about the intimate relationship between a young boy and an older woman and the implications for each as they move beyond their brief affair? Also, could this truly be a Holocaust film without centrally addressing the issue from a Jewish perspective?
I find it intriguing that The Reader — which is up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday — is one of several films (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Defiance, Valkyrie) released late last year that turned attention to World War II and questions of the Holocaust.
Of the four, only Defiance seeks to present a Jewish narrative, and that one goes further with its portrayal of Jews as active participants, even warriors, intent on taking care of themselves. Valkyrie is less about Jews and the Holocaust than its intricate plot to assassinate Hitler. If anything, Bryan Singer’s film is a Usual Suspects-styled thriller set during the war as opposed to even attempting to define it as a war movie.
But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, while offering different vantage points (during and postwar, respectively), key in on German characters and their reactions and relationships within the context of the war and the Holocaust.
Actor Thomas Kretschmann, who played Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who aided Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as he sought to escape capture in Warsaw in 1944, introduced me to the idea of German guilt during an interview for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.
Kretschmann spoke of how Germans of his generation, whose parents might have come of age during or just after the war, have been unflinchingly exposed to (and have thus embraced) the history and questions about the roles regular citizens might or might not have played in the atrocities visited upon Jews and the greater European community.
I recently had the chance to speak with David Kross, who plays Michael, the young reader caught up in a secret affair with Hanna (Kate Winslet), a former Nazi guard. At 18, Kross is further removed from the historic circumstances.
“Even my mother is not (of) the generation in the film,” he says. “But we learn it in school and we, well, I should only speak for myself, I was very aware of the guilt we still carry. And as Kretschmann said, we are willing to embrace, we are willing to read about it and keep reading about it. My mother watched the film (The Reader) and she really thought she could understand the characters because she felt the same way.”
The book version of The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, gives more detailed voice to the debate of postwar Germans struggling to deal with the shame of not speaking out about the horrific acts occurring in their midst. And it is this next generation, the children of those who did nothing, that issues the toughest accusations and calls for justice.
But, as seen through the eyes of the maturing Michael who is in law school at the time Hanna goes on trial for her role in the Holocaust, there is yet another level of complicity in other unspoken truths. The question seems to be, “When will we be able to unburden ourselves?” for therein lies the freedom and redemption we seek.
So many of us in the media have come to ascribe a sense of hope and all things Obama to this moment of transition, but I do believe these films and their divergent frames of reference hold a key to the future. An interesting footnote to the story of Germans and the Holocaust is the posthumous honor of “Righteous Among the Nations” granted to Wilm Hosenfeld by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, for the aid he gave to Szpilman and others in 1944.
After the war, Hosenfeld was tried for his role as a Nazi officer and sentenced to life in prison, but today his children have accepted this honor on his behalf.
If Germans can take up the weight of history like this, then there is hope that here in America we can move forward to a day when, as we speak of race and civil rights, the burden to open that discussion or to carry it to the next step won’t have to rest on the shoulders of black people.
Kross serves as a strong example for the idea that it will be the younger generation leading the charge.
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