Tag Archives: The Reader

Compassion – Hanna(h)s and the Holocaust

I revisited The Reader, the film that finally saw Kate Winslet get her Oscar – as Ricky Gervais predicted, it was about the holocaust. There’s been other such observations (such as in new film The Congress) that this most sensitive subject, often cited as the greatest horror of this or any time, garners recognition.

I shared my initial thoughts on Bernhard Schlink’s tale – five years on, I stand by them all. I had further thoughts on the writing, which in neither case (book nor script) was perfect, but that’s not the focus of this post. You can see them on my Amazon reviews.

The impression that left me with was the assumption that awfulness and shame is the only response that Germans leave themselves for the events of and around World War II; that it is beyond forgiveness, and to attempt it is offensive to Jews – and I again point out that they were one of at least 4 groups (gay, gypsy, disabled too) who were targeted.

There is nothing to be learned, says the daughter who was in the fire and in concentration camps. In the film, Hanna Schmidt says it after her 20 years in prison, before taking her life. Neither party is allowed to grow; the whole story is about stagnant people, in victimhood and guilt. Although I am aware that what holocaust victims endured is something many of us have no idea of, I think all of us have experienced suffering and therefore am not unqualified to suggest that it is those darkest times especially where we see growth.

The Reader is about a court case of six SS guards. My response drifted from the legal response to – what would a counsellor or a minister say to these guards? Their business is not justice in the philosophical sense of logical wranglings, but of the heart.

Hannah Arendt is a film about a very similar subject – the 1960s trial of SS workers. This time, the trial is real and there is only one employee in the dock – an infamous senior one, and whose actions make far more sense to bring to court. (One of my criticisms of The Reader is that the church on fire was a case of manslaughter/Samaritan Law, not a war crime – the things the guards did which might have been weren’t the focus of the trial, thus weakening the premise). In both stories, the defendants are a synecdoche, standing for the vast army of SS workers during Nazi Germany, and the persons are made to represent a historic moment rather than the deeds of the individual.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who was captured in the war, and yet her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem yields more generous results than the immature fictional Michael Berg who was not implicated or involved in the camps – he wasn’t even born.

Both stories involve a defendant who seems to have lost their moral compass, and can only think in terms of their duty and orders. They cannot grasp their part in sending people to their death; it is a conveyor belt, and once they have done their part on the assembly line, they do not think about the next.

Hannah Arendt’s summation was that Eichmann’s lack of thinking was what made the atrocities he masterminded possible. It is true of Hanna Schmidt, the imaginary guard and lover of Michael in The Reader. Hanna doesn’t just not think, she can’t read; in learning, she faces some of her past by reading about the Holocaust, including Hannah Arendt’s. This hugely important point was left out of the film and Hanna is given even less scope for anything positive than in the book.

What most made me angry was that Kate Winslet, who I admire, said that if viewers sympathised with Hanna whom she played, they would (or should) feel morally compromised.

Wrong. You are never morally compromised for feeling compassion.

That means, to feel with: it is not about endorsing, just listening and empathy.

I again bring up my therapist and pastor, whose business it is not to condemn, but to facilitate a way back to wholeness. I again note how The Reader uses theological terms, which are actually from the legal – redeem, atone, justification, propitiation, expiation. They are ugly in pulpit and court; the two shouldn’t be conjoined.

What scares me most, what makes these stories relevant, is not perpetuating the suffering of the groups who were killed and the now remorseful perpetrators of the last world war. It is that the mindset that made that Nazi movement possible is still with us.

It starts with the milder things, with something that seems reasonable.

But I warn against creating enemies and unquestioning allegiances.

You are never just doing your job – you are never excused from thinking, or your conscience. Conscience is knowing with, and that is not a matter for only thought – it is a feeling, and intuition.

If your role takes away liberties, crushes, oppresses; if you are afraid to stand up to your employer – than something is gravely wrong and needs to be stopped. No contract should ever ask personal principles to come second to work.

It can be in smaller ways – random searches, taking or demanding money that causes poverty and fear; refusing an appeal. Many of us have opportunities and powers in this way. Thinking of them as papers or stats to clear, not as real people, is the first step. That’s how the army gets its staff to kill – targets are other, they are not like you. But this can be true of judges, police and enforcement, customs staff, welfare. Belle is the story of a judge who used his power well.

In small ways, we can begin that change: to refuse to act out of suspicion and prejudice, to break the chain of command which puts pressure on the next person, which uses fear to coerce. We can choose not to believe hype that would justify such actions.

If we never lose sight that the other person isn’t other, they’re a person, we could halt the fear and aggression and ensure dictatorships never again rise.

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Kate Winslet 3: patterns in her lovers

Further (and probably final – for now) musings on the 20 year career of Ms Winslet…

 – the short term intensive relationship

Titanic, Labor Day, The Reader, perhaps Finding Neverland; the first two are a matter of days in isolation – one on a voyage, the other, a weekend; the next, a summer

– Her loves set her free

They’re often childlike men and not macho – Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic who spits and runs and has a boyish aspect, though an inner maturity and sortedness; James M Barrie (Johnny Depp) in Finding Neverland who dresses as a Red Indian and wears spoons on his nose at dinner – truly his Peter Pan; Bilal in Hideous Kinky does handstands and magic tricks and has little sense of real responsibility or adult relating; Miles in The Holiday; Brad in Little Children wants to skateboard and play ball, and isn’t comfortable in his relationships or responsibilties. In The Reader, her lover’s a teenager half her age. In Iris, John Bayley’s perhaps a little bumbling and eccentric and less experienced in relationships; Iris looks after him in a childlike way until her illness; in Enigma, Tom’s a genius in meltdown. Monty in Mildred Pierce is less boyish physically, but he’s a playboy in both senses; he leads her out sexually, but he and worldly wise Wally contribute to Mildred’s downward arc. I am not sure Monty can be said to contribute to Mildred’s rise in confidence or business success – rather, he reaps its rewards.

Note how often chasing, fights, games come into the halcyon days with her loves – Jude, Iris, Eternal…, Titanic.

Jack, Bilal and James bring her character out; Kate’s character brings out John and Michael; in Eternal…, Clem embodies what’s in Joel’s head.

The only macho man so far in Kate’s career is in Labor Day, where Frank’s the controlling one, although he does a traditional women’s thing – he bakes and feeds the family, but then ties up Adele and plays baseball, the right of passage to manhood also in A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and in Little Children. I would say that another Frank in Revolutionary Road is controlling – but then, his behaviour leads to demise. Note that Leo’s role here is a reverse of his Titanic one.

Ruth disarms PJ of his machismo in Holy Smoke.

Men who give her power and encouragement lead her forward – Jack lets Rose come onto him and take the lead, and he contrasts with her controlling Mum and fiancé by giving Rose the tools for a life of freedom and fulfilment away from stricture.

By working together as equals, and Hester and Tom solve the Enigma.

Kate’s played a woman interested in other women (even subtly, tangentially) 4 times:

Heavenly Creatures is all about a female friendship that’s arguably love (though it’s too complicated to simply call lesbian); in Holy Smoke she dances with another women and kisses her sensuously; Iris is bisexual, and so’s Hester in Enigma, whose drive towards solving a mystery with Tom is because both have feelings for Claire (in the book it’s more obvious). And then, there’s Veda in Mildred Pierce, a hard to place mother daughter relationship where Mildred has physical thrills around her daughter and kisses her on the lips, and fights like a spurned lover. In the novel of Little Children, Sarah had a relationship with a woman before she met her husband.

Her loves are her undoing

Like Shakespeare plays, Kate’s onscreen loves come mostly in two categories, often not overlapping:

Those drive her mad or to near death; and those who give her new life (tradegy/comedy)

The former are in Heavenly Creatures, Hamlet, Jude, Quills, Revolutionary Road, Mildred Pierce

Marianne’s first love in Sense and Sensibility is her undoing (the charismatic, handsome, playful libertine Willoughby), but the second, older love (Colonel Brandon) is reliable and moral.

– Escape through imagination, travel, learning

This is recurrent and the most empowering: even if it goes wrong, it’s due to forces or society.

In Heavenly Creatures, Pauline and Juliette create worlds, but are severed through paranoid families and schools and a legal system

Jude‘s advanced through learning and geographically moving, but classism and judgement about marriage creates poverty leading to tragedy and parting

Travel and the search for the spiritual (which involves some imagination and reading) empower Julia of Hideous Kinky and Ruth of Holy Smoke.

The desire to travel – and not getting it – thwarts April in Revolutionary Road; and its lack is behind the problems of Maddie in Quills and Adele in Labor Day; but it opens up possibilities for Rose in Titanic, Iris in The Holiday

Reading is the solace of Maddie in Quills, whose goodness in life comes from vicariously not being good on the page, and of Hannah in The Reader. Iris Murdoch’s whole existence is around words and worlds – academically and in fiction.

Isolation in body and spirit causes demise; keeping on metaphorical corsets means loss of mind and self, and ultimately, life.

It’s meant to be a warning to do differently, I think, rather than suggesting that bohemianism is destructive, so stay conventional: I think those stories say the reverse.

Breaking out of that gives the autonomous women Kate regularly chooses a better life, a life to the full, and is one of the reasons I enjoy watching her and following her career.

Next season will be Juliette Binoche to go with her new film, A Thousand Times Good Night

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