When working with the Holocaust in a film or book the question that inevitably comes up is, can one make art from the Holocaust? And if so, to what end? The Reader, even its complexities, cannot escape the difficulty of these questions and stumbles even as it seems to try to question how one should approach the Holocaust. The subtleties of the film undercut its overt statements about the subject, and it’s these subtleties that makes The Reader, although excellent and never uneven in terms of acting or story, unable to completely resolve the needs of the story and the questions of suitability.
The Reader tells the story of Michael and Anna who meet in the early 50’s when Michael is 15 or 16 and Anna is in her late 30’s. They begin a passionate affair that is filled with sex and long reading sessions when Michael would read to Anna from his school books. Michael distances himself from his family and his friends as he and Anna spend more time together, finally culminating in a bicycle trip through the country side. Suddenly, though, Anna is offered a promotion where she works and instead of taking it, moves out and says nothing to Michael. Naturally, Michael is devastated but life goes on and the move cuts to show him as a law student in the early 60’s. He is a law student without any particular convictions until his professor takes him to the trial of 6 women SS concentration camp guards. One of the guards turns out to be Anna, and not only is she implicated in the mass killing of prisoners in a fire in a church, but she is said to have been the leader of the guards. Anna seems emotionless and does not deny anything like the other women. Instead, her only defense seems to be is that it was a good job, a better one than the one at Siemens. At one point in the questioning she asks the Judge, what would you done? Implying it was perfectly natural to take the job as a guard. During the trial, though, Michael realizes that she is illiterate and that she could not have written the confession where she takes responsibility for not freeing the prisoners in the burning church. Michael wants to tell her that she shouldn’t take the blame, but he can’t and she is sentenced to the maximum time in prison. Michael forgets about her and marries and has a daughter, but haunted by her he cannot relate to other women and lives a solitary life until, one day, he sees one of his old books and decides to read to her again using cassettes. He reads book after book as he rekindles a forgotten love and she receives the tapes which she listens to at first, but then uses to learn to read. After years of this, she is set to be released, but Michael still wants to keep his distance and the day before leaving the prison hangs herself. She doesn’t explain why she did it, but she does will all her money and possessions to Michael. The movie then cuts to New York sometime latter. Michael goes to meet one of the survivors from the camp who had written the book that implicated Anna. She won’t take Anna’s money, which Michael says Anna wanted to give her. She says nothing good ever came from the camps, yet she does take a little tin tea box that Anna had stored the money in and which looked like one her father had given her when she was a child. This pleases Michael and he returns to Germany satisfied. The closing scene is of Michael and his daughter at Anna’s grave just before he tells her about Anna.
It is clear even from the above that Anna is a difficult charter to understand. It is even more so because the film is not Anna’s story, but Michael’s story about Anna. Yet it is clear that she is either cold and callous or someone who has so compartmentalized her life that her role in the Holocaust has little meaning to her. When she tells the judge, what would you have done, she makes it clear that she does not see much in the way of the moral dimensions of her choice. Her choice has the physical consequences—jail, poverty—but not the moral. It is possible she even believed in the process of murder. Whatever the case, there is no Poe-like Tell Tale Heart to redeem her, only her history. (Is it even possible to believe someone like her has recanted? But that is a different issue.) When she dies she gives her money only to Michael, not to any one else, as the warden makes clear when she says, “she left everything to you (Michael).” Michael, however, says to the survivor in New York that Anna wanted her to have the money. Most likely, since this is Michael’s story, Anna said nothing. Anna did what she did and the greater shame was to admit she couldn’t read—a truly unbalanced view of what is shameful.
If the complexity of the film were to end there, the film would be another addition to the literature of the banality of evil. The story, though, adds two redemptive elements: Anna learns to read; and Michael is able to feel good about her. When Anna learns to read the thing that shamed her most is now gone. She has reached beyond her failures. Yet the triumph in light of her past is not a triumph, but a trick: look she can change. But what has changed? There is no redemption here, just an obfuscation of the past. Could any thing redeem her? The Reader leaves plenty of room to understand that the tendency to see redemption when a character has overcome some hardship is easily misplaced. And Michael’s need to redeem her, too, is a false redemption. He doesn’t want her to be redeemed for her sake, but so that he can feel that his never ending love for her is not the love for a monster. He is the one who insists in giving the money to a Jewish cause; he is the one who insists on seeing the survivor. The redemption for him, then, is a way to redeem himself, to make up for what he couldn’t do for her, for what he has done to his daughter. In short, Michael deludes himself, because delusion is pleasing.
None of these redemptive issues would matter much if the film wasn’t about the Holocaust. The Holocaust, though, adds a further layer, because playing with ideas of redemption while using the history of mas murder can easily diminish the horror. Can the Holocaust be used as a backdrop or as Jacob Heilbrunn recently wrote, “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.” While Heilbrunn’s article doesn’t examine The Reader in depth, it does raise the question, can such huge crimes be the materials for ethical delemas? The reason it is important to ask the question is because The Reader does not stop with the two moments of redemption above. While one could mistake this as a redemptive movie, its complexities do lead to a wider, more nuanced reading. It is when Michael goes to New York the problems start. When Michael talks to the survivor she tells him, “nothing good ever comes of the camps,” and yet when Michael leaves the movie shows her placing the tea tin in a place of honor, as if something great has been recovered. Yet isn’t the tin something good coming of the camps? Moreover, the tin carries another act of redemption: from Anna to Michael to the survivor. A nice tidy ending. It is when Michael makes the visit, the film begins to blur the lines between the complexities of Michael’s reactions and how the Holocaust is perceived and can be contemplated. The survivor says nothing good can come of the camps, and yet one of the last images of the film is something good coming of the story, and by extension, the camps. It is a tricky thing to on the one had show Michael’s delusion, yet not sentimentalize the return of the tin, as if that made everything whole. Unfortunately, The Reader chooses to wrap the film with a tidy resolution that can make one feel good, but resolves nothing.
To return to the question that opened the article: can one make art from the Holocaust? Of course, and Imre Kertez’s Fatelessness is a perfect example, but as The Reader shows, even the best works can easily loose focus and bring resolutions to where there are none, only the longing for the end of a story whose backdrop even 60 years latter is not just a forgotten ruin.