The Reader: a defense

The other day, the Better Half and I went to see The Reader. We had wanted to see Frost/Nixon, but were too late and had to go with a second choice. Being a big fan of Kate Winslet, I went along with the back-up choice, and I'm glad I did. While I didn't love to movie, I liked it just fine, and I thought her performance was typically fantastic.

I've read a lot of criticism of this film, and I found a typical example here in Slate. I should probably give a SPOILER ALERT, since further discussion requires that I reveal a large plot point. (I saw the film already knowing the secret, and still enjoyed it, but I don't want to presume.) Many people have found the movie morally questionable, even repugnant. I didn't see it that way.

To quote the review:
A deeply depressing indication of how the film misreads the Holocaust can be found in a recent New York Times report on the state of the Oscar race. The paper gave disproportionate attention to The Reader by featuring a wistful-looking still of Kate Winslet above the headline "Films About Personal Triumphs Resonate With Viewers During Awards Season."

What, exactly, was the Kate Winslet character's "personal triumph"? While in prison for participation in an act of mass murder that was particularly gruesome and personal, given the generally impersonal extermination process—as a death camp guard, she helped ensure 300 Jewish women locked in a burning church would die in the fire—she taught herself to read! What a heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer!
I agree that, if one views the movie as a story of redemption through literacy, then it is repulsive. Similarly, to somehow excuse Hanna (Winslet's character) for being ignorant because she was illiterate would be disgusting and facile. Perhaps people have interpreted the movie this way, but that is not how I did.

I did not get the impression that Hanna was ignorant of the crimes she had committed. I did not view her illiteracy as an excuse. And I did not view her shame at being illiterate, which leads to a greater share of blame for certain crimes than she (perhaps) deserves, as anything other than misplaced and pathetic. Perhaps I am wrong, but I didn't think the film presented that viewpoint.

Similarly, I don't think the film portrays Hanna as having been redeemed because she has learned to read. In fact, when Hanna tells her former lover (all grown up) that what she has learned in prison is "to read," it is a matter-of-fact statement that that is all she has learned, and that she has neither had a morally relevant revelation of her own guilt or any kind of redemptive change of heart. She's learned to read, but that's it, and in the face of her crimes, so what? Maybe I'm missing something, but I rather enjoyed (my sense) that the film wasn't trying to absolve her. In fact, a proxy character (a little girl nearly killed by Hanna's indifference) at the end pointedly refuses to absolve her, or to accept her attempt at restitution.

Now, again, perhaps I'm missing the point. Maybe the film is trying to conflate illiteracy with ignorance, and literacy with redemption. It seems that it was certainly marketed that way. But, ignorant of this marketing and of Oprah's response to the book many years ago, I enjoyed a different film (perhaps) than intended. One that presented, in my view, a morally compromised character that, at times, evokes our sympathy, but never earns our absolution.

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