Saturday, December 27, 2008

FILM: The Reader

SANDY: Yesterday we saw one of the movies, which has generated the most end-of-year buzz, a film with a very European feel: Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. The acting was excellent. Kate Winslet has never been so fine. David Kross, as Michael, the fifteen-year-old schoolboy who reads to her, also succeeds in making the story believable. One of my favorite actors, Ralph Fiennes is convincing in the role of Michael as an older man. By now, everyone has seen Kross in the iron bathtub with Winslet, naked. Probably there will have been too much skin for the American public to embrace this movie, but Sven and I feel the erotic relationship between Hanna and Michael needed visualization. We recommend you put The Reader at the top of your holiday list for the complexity of the moral questions it raises.

SVEN: I cannot reveal the whole story, but basically it has to do with good and evil. Maybe good people can do evil things and evil people can do good things? Sometimes the difference between good and evil becomes blurred. When I was a young man, I worked as a lumberjack in the forest. I had a foreman of German origin. He was very respected and worked hard. I knew his son personally. And, since I was curious, I asked, “What did your father do during the war?” He always answered, “Dad was a policeman in Hamburg.” Then, one day, while we were working, an unusual thing happened. Big black cars drove up the road towards our workplace. Policemen in plain clothes got out and arrested the father. This was in the early 1960s. There were a lot of trials going on in Germany at that time in an attempt to apprehend lower echelon war criminals. This man’s trial went on for a while, but he was finally acquitted because of lack of proof.

Many years later, I was working in a school and I met another teacher whose subject was religion. He was also of German origin, a minister. Of course, I asked, “How was it possible that your countrymen could behave in such a way?” He responded, “As for me, I deserted, swimming from Norway, across Oslo Fiord, to Stromstad. So, that tells you my position. But, once a German compatriot took contact with me because he was harassed by his guilt. He had belonged to a police battalion from Hamburg. Most of them were middle-aged men with families, very ordinary people. Once, in a small Baltic town, he was ordered to execute at least 200 Jewish people, which he apparently did. Trying to explain his action, he came up with three reasons. 1. If I had not done it, someone else would. 2. I was afraid of being punished and executed. 3. I was afraid of what would happen to my family.”

I looked at the minister and said, “I know who this man is.”

Indeed, it was the foreman. I never told his son but somehow he found out and it changed his life. His hair turned white. My friend carried his father’s guilt and never got over it.

Later on I read one of the most depressing books I have ever come upon, the memoir of the last commander of Auschwitz. What shocked me was that the people described in the book were ordinary. I remembered the two Germans I knew and asked myself, what would I have done in a very authoritarian society? You follow orders. You do not disobey higher authority, the Lutheran heritage. Well, I thought about it and decided I would have tried to swim the Oslo Fiord, too.

CONCLUSION: The Reader provides an unusual take on what has become a Hollywood staple, the Holocaust story. It would probably be worthwhile to read the novel on which this film was based, now available in translation.

3 comments:

Zuleme said...

My FIL's family lived in Norrland and he loves to tell stories about working with lumber up there. He is 80.

Thomas said...

Sven,
Once again I have really enjoyed your insights and remembrances prompted by a film. Indeed the book which I read while I was still living in Canada, perhaps 2001 or so, was a haunting story of powerful human emotions. I really recommend you read it for the story sounds to me as though it may have been largely autobiographical though, of course, that is not how it is presented. See what you think.

Cheers Tom

Thomas said...

PS Sven I did see the film with Camille just last night and echo what you say. The acting was superb and the setting was transformative. Obvious kudos to Kate Winslet and both Ralph Fiennes and the young boy who plays the young "kid.". I also really liked Bruno Ganz in this as well . A segue but remember when we are together to ask me about a relative who sawed logs in the Northern forests of Russia long ago. A curious period in his life. T