Nazi’s are a Hollywood staple. Not because they provide a narrative platform for confronting complicated moral questions but because Nazis- always all ready absolutely evil- preclude questions all together. The Reader, however, successfully redeploys this overused theme and accomplishes exactly what should be accomplished by the narrative depiction of atrocity; it raises questions about the answers that we take for granted, producing a sense of ambivalence rather than closure. Instead of simplifying the question of German guilt, The Reader presents a narrative nearly as problematic as its subject matter.
Popular film often makes superficial gestures towards such moral complication through a character-based cultivation of sympathy for the devil, but The Reader goes further than reminding us that even Nazis have feelings- a trope that ultimately reinforces the moral superiority of viewers by mitigating the guilt that accompanies condemnation, rather than encouraging any real reflection. The female protagonist, Hannah is truly difficult to digest. Neither wholly sympathetic nor morally objectionable, Hannah is an uncomfortable amalgamation of traits that are usually assigned to oppositional characters. And, because the narrative is closer in form to an act of revision than a final product, the audience is constantly re-thinking conclusions drawn from earlier passages rather than awaiting the story’s final answer.
The film presages the later question of Hanna’s legal guilt with a surprisingly sensitive depiction of another situation that is frequently dismissed before it is discussed- a sexual relationship between an adult and a minor. In a legal sense, she is guilty of statutory rape but instead of condemning her, the film uses this opportunity to lay the groundwork for a scenario in which culpability cannot be so simply assigned. It is Michael, not Hannah, who is first depicted in an act of transgression as he watches Hannah undress. It is her recognition of his desire that ignites the relationship even if it is her agency that consummates it.
By contrast, Michael and Hannah’s affair is based largely on what is typically considered an amoral, asexual act: Michael reads to her. The sexual act is depicted as secondary to the pleasure that Hannah derives from his reading. The satisfaction that he shows in reading to her provides proof of the relationship’s mutual character. But it is also not a wholly innocent situation, or a matter of love transcending social mores. Hannah knows that she is doing something wrong and Michael does not share this awareness. While on a weekend bike trip, they stop at a café. The waitress assumes that Hanna is Michael’s mother and alludes to this in her absence. When she returns and they get up to leave he pulls her to him and kisses her proprietarily in front of the waitress to Hannah’s clear discomfort. Michael is glowing- untouched by the shame of the guilty.
While this part of the story serves to humanize Hannah it also establishes a certain power structure and raises the question of intent that is later central to her murder trial. An element of exploitation exists, but its results are not necessarily harmful. In the context of a romantic relationship, her guilt cannot be established in advance according to the viewer’s knowledge and interpretation of history proper. Rather it must be decided based on the narrative presented because, unlike Nazi Germany, what is on the screen is the only evidence available. Love makes one do stupid things, we can think sympathetically. And this insertion of personal sentiment into a political relationship complicates the assignation of guilt- the moral judgment that constitutes spectatorship. .
The last time we see Hannah before the trial she is being given a promotion- she will be moving from her job working on the trolley to a job in the offices. The camera settles on her face as she stands alone on the platform. She looks terrified. Then she disappears and Michael is left, heartbroken and with no sense of closure.
Years later Michael is in law school- a diligent young man who is shown actively isolating himself from his peers. When he finally succumbs to the romantic advances of a classmate he leaves her bed in the middle of the night. Michael, we are given to understand, is still very much nursing the wound inflicted by Hannah’s disappearance. And here, in the early days of his legal training, Michael is re-united with Hannah in a court room where she is being tried for murder along with six other women who knowingly “dispatched” prisoners from a work camp to an extermination center during WWII. It is only now that the issue of Hannah’s guilt is raised explicitly and the presence of Michael as an observer, demands that we not only consider her culpability but the crime itself. The injury to Michael and her war crimes are not presented as equivalents of one another or even necessarily as parallels (they were, after all, totally distinct until this essentially coincidental moment) but they are related through a circumstance revealed by the judges repetition of the spectator’s earlier question. “Why did you leave your job to become a prison guard when you had just received a promotion?”
And while this adolescent love affair is as far from a war crime as possible, it becomes integral to the trial when Michael decides to withhold evidence. “I have evidence that could help her” Michael tells his professor. “then you must submit it” he responds. That is how the law works. But it is not how a young boy with a broken heart works. Michael, likely buoyed by the predetermination of guilt attached to Hannah’s indictment, does not turn over this evidence. Did the law work then? Was Hannah’s sentence of life imprisonment fair?
At this moment the movie proceeds to force a crucial decision upon the audience. What does this instance of a personal disruption of the legal system mean? Is this a problem or was the supercession of this system an ethical necessity? And how does this differ from the ideologically motivated legal processes of the Nazi party? Did Michael willfully withhold evidence for a higher cause? Or was the ethical used as a smokescreen for personal retribution? For Michael, reasonably infers that he was equally disposable and one can only imagine the depths of such an emotional wound. Asking whether or not Hannah’s sentence was deserved is asking how guilty she is, and placing culpability on a spectrum determined by the intersection of innumerable circumstances and processes. Hannah is guilty of war crimes but it takes some work to reach this conclusion. Guilty or not is never the only question.
The answers to these questions foreground another moral absolute central to the current zeitgeist; literacy. During the trial, Hannah admits to more than her fair share of the crime (the other women get four years to her life) when asked to give a handwriting sample. She simply puts down the pen and admits to drafting the records of these crimes. While earlier she claimed that each of the women each chose ten prisoners she now claimed that she had overseen the entire affair. Everyone was following her orders. Here, it seems as if she is either caught or simply overwhelmed by guilt, the only penitent in the bunch. We feel sorry for Hannah and then years later she is in prison, receiving tapes of Michael reading books. She always preferred to be read to….
As it turns out, it was never so much a preference as a necessity. Hannah is illiterate. We discover this during the trial by way of a rather melodramatic flashback and later she is show teaching herself to read with the aid of Michael’s tapes. It is a moving scene but rather than simply offering illiteracy as an excuse for violence, it also undermines the apparent penitence of Hannah at trial- offering stubborn pride as an equally feasible, and far less appealing, explanation of her frantic admission. Furthermore, while the official determination of her guilt was directly related to literacy, the fact that she cannot read and write is not exculpatory. It explains why she turned down a promotion and became a prison guard, but doesn’t explain why she didn’t learn to read then. And it certainly doesn’t explain her mental relationship to her crimes. Indeed, Hannah’s preference for being read to, was intimately connected to her choices of prisoners to be dispatched. She chose the frail and sickly and literate. A brutal combination of efficiency and selfish pleasure, she would have them read to her and then send them to their death.
The statement, “I prefer to be read to” begins to take on a political character. What is a phenomenon like the rise of National Socialism if not a preference for having everything read to you? And being able to change the rules of that reading at will. Certain moments from earlier in the film begin to make a different kind of sense. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “disgusting” and at a point she announces that they will be reading and then fucking. “We are changing the order of things kid,” she says perfunctorily. There are other traits that retrospectively become evidence against her. For example, she has thoroughly internalized the dictates of cleanliness central to Nazi ideology. She is always bathing and also bathing Michael.
Literacy is no moral dues ex machina, but a disappointing substitute for confession. Illiteracy, it turns out, does not excuse anything. Indeed the inability to read and write does not, as we would like to imagine, even explain anything. And what is literacy anyway? Hannah is very literate in a certain sense. She has ‘read’ many more classic works than the average person. Why should she glean anything more from reading the same works in print?
While the moment that we discover her illiteracy is very moving, it is not evidence of contrition. Neither reading nor prison has lead to the outpouring of long contemplated culpability that Michael expects. An apology for one of two offenses that would provide resolution for both protagonist and spectator. Worse, Michael’s gift to Hanna, may have interfered with the redemptive goal of the punitive process. Michael greatly mitigated Hannah’s isolation. This was his intention of course. He was atoning for his own role it. But the results, like the end of their affair, were deeply disappointing. The explanation or apology that he anticipates never materializes.
“I did learn something kid. I learned to read” she says. This is upsetting on two fronts. It does not provide an adequate substitute for a recognition of guilt and, as a culture seduced by information- convinced that one lap top per child with cure Africa of its political ills- literacy itself disappoints us. Literacy itself does not resolve, let alone solve, anything.
And this, perhaps more than periodic sympathy for Hannah, is the truly difficult thing for the information age to stomach. Despite being widely known, the fact that IBM facilitated the final solution on an administrative level remains an appalling cultural blind spot in the information revolution. Acknowledging it revokes the myth of text as panacea that prevents us from examining the logical tendencies of our own information-based culture. Without the indiscriminant book burning Nazi to define ourselves against, we must reconsider a set of political relationships much less distant than we would like them to be.