By Harriet P. Gross
Have you seen “The Reader”?
I did, on Christmas Eve at an annual evening for Jews who may feel a bit out of the season’s celebratory mode. “The Reader” didn’t draw a crowd like last year’s movie about female Jewish comedians, or the one the year before that dealt with cantors and traditional and non-traditional chazzanut.
No surprise. “The Reader” deals with the Holocaust, and some people don’t want such an “unpleasant” subject for holiday viewing — even on a holiday that really belongs to others. Some are tired of the many new books and films dealing with the Holocaust. Some are trying to avoid becoming depressed during a festive season.
I’ve been maintaining for a long time now that nobody can avoid the Holocaust as a film and story subject — nor should it, or any subsequent depression, be avoided. I truly believe the Shoah is the second seminal event in the life history of Judaism. The Exodus, of course, was the first. We’re still telling its tales and those of its aftermath after all these years, and we’re not done yet, because the Exodus is what gave birth to everything Jewish. Everything we are is its aftermath.
So it’s futilely wrong to say that we don’t want to read any more Holocaust books, or see any more Holocaust films, because the Shoah has likewise birthed what Judaism is today. No one can forget 6 million deaths and the loss of a whole Jewish culture. Nobody can fail to connect these with all that Jewish life has been since, and will become in the future.
So, I’ll ask you again: Have you seen “The Reader”?
I stress this particular film because it’s been interpreted and critiqued in such different, conflicting ways. Not the same kind of reality conflict raised by “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which asks for a suspension of disbelief that those well-grounded in Shoah cannot accept, even for purposes of “art” and/or “making a point.” How could the little prisoner have been so robustly chubby, and had time and opportunity to sit near a fence, doing nothing? How did a German boy manage to get that close to the heart of a killing camp? And so on. Valid questions.
But very different, I think, from those raised by “The Reader.” A local reviewer has seized upon the centrality of reading throughout this film, and made what I consider a fatuous leap of, and to, cause and effect: Hitler burned books before he burned bodies. True. But Hitler did not burn bodies because he burned books. And Hitler’s Germany was full of literate people who knew the values of both books and people, but somehow managed to throw those values away and go on with the burning anyway. The questions raised by this film cannot be answered with a single, pat statement.
I consider a national reviewer equally wrong for not finding any questions in the film at all, but asking only a single one about it: Are we supposed to be moved by the idea that one unrepentant Nazi finally learns to read? I can’t accept that as the central idea of “The Reader” at all.
Here are some of my questions: Wasn’t lack of literacy what held back this German woman in her post-war life? May we assume that she was also held back pre-war, for the same reason? Wasn’t her shame over this lack what caused her ultimately to accept responsibility for a monstrous Nazi act? May we not assume that this same shame magnified her culpability, while allowing others to minimize theirs? How can we judge when we know so little? Shouldn’t we also be judging the man who knew her secret, but withheld the telling of it?
Of course, there’s no resolution here, no real answers to any of these questions. It’s “just” a story. But such a story challenges us to ask unanswerable questions and strain for answers. Like the many new Holocaust memoirs and fictions flooding today’s market, new films such as this one are posing new questions. We think the Shoah has already taught us everything about horror, but we are wrong. There’s a legacy of more subtle horrors waiting, begging to be explored. After more than a half-century, that exploration is now beginning. It’s a vital part of our current, always developing Jewish life.
So, I ask again: Have you seen “The Reader”? If you have, or when you do, please let me know what you think.
By Harriet P. Gross