WARNING: I intend to spoil this movie in a most egregious fashion. If you haven't seen it yet, you might want to click away.
After watching The Reader, I made my way home in a daze. I cannot state with certainty whether this was an effect of the movie or my cough medicine; at any rate, I arrived home with no recollection of the drive home and my head full of questions.
This movie deals with Big Questions.
1. Who should take responsibility for the actions of the concentration camp guards, the guards themselves or their superior officers?
There's a trial in The Reader, where you find out Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) was a guard at a concentration camp. With five other women, she was responsible for choosing prisoners to go to Auschwitz (and certain death). Hanna is the only one of the women who admits to doing this; the others deny having a hand in the choices.
In addition to this, Hanna and the other guards had taken some prisoners on a death march and, during a night bombing, 300 people had died when the building they were in caught fire. According to one of the survivors, the victims could not escape because the doors were locked from the outside. Again, during the trial, Hanna is the only one to give any kind of explanation, and it boils down to this: It's better to have controlled mass death than the chaos of 300 frightened women.
That doesn't make her sound very sympathetic, does it? But you can see, as she speaks, that it makes sense to her, and it was probably something that had been drilled into her by her superior officers. (This does not, of course, excuse her actions.)
It doesn't help that she doesn't seem to show much remorse. But it's difficult to know what Hanna's feeling at ANY point; it's possible that she IS sorry but cannot or doesn't know how to express her feelings.
There's more to this question as well. For example, it's clear that the reason the trial came about in the first place is that the German public is feeling incredible guilt for allowing these things to happen. In spite of some people's denials, of their claims that they JUST DIDN'T KNOW, surely they had some inkling of what was going on. I mean, it's not like they never heard about the Kristellnacht, or notice that suddenly there were no more Jews in their little towns; there had to have been some level of knowledge. After all, there is some decision-making in turning a blind eye; it's not an involuntary reflex.
2. What do you do when you find out your friend/lover/relative has a spectacularly evil past? Should it change your relationship? Does it change how you view that relationship?
I imagine this is often fought without the context of the Holocaust, and that it's always a difficult battle. When Michael (David Kross) sees Hanna at the trial, it's the first indication he has that she had any kind of life before he met her. I think that's a very real event; so often we forget that people actually existed before they met us.
(Well, it's true for me, at least; I distinctly recall saying to my mother, when I was a little girl, "But I don't REMEMBER Adam and Eve!" as though history could not have happened unless I was there to witness it.)
The trial occurs eight years after their affair ended--Michael found out it was over when he went to Hanna's apartment and she had moved out. Of course, he hasn't forgotten her, and he is devastated when she walks into the courtroom and he hears the charges. It's almost impossible for him to see his lover as a Nazi, which is completely understandable. Hearing the testimony destroys him.
3. What does it say about YOU if you still love a person with a criminal past?
This, I think, is the crux of the film. The movie opens in 1995, and we see that Michael is incapable of maintaining any kind of relationship, even with his daughter. He lives in a building, not a home, and it's almost as if he is not living in HIMSELF, if that makes sense. He is detached.
I think his struggle comes from his inability to separate himself from Hanna. It becomes clear through the story that he has never stopped loving her. He is absolutely horrified by her actions, yes, but he is sympathetic and kind to her as well. To love her in spite of what she's done seems to be both his burden and his blessing.
I imagine that he must have spent agonizing hours trying to figure out what that makes him: does his love for her mean he condones what she's done? does that mean that he could have done the same? does it bring him down to the level of the Nazis?
I think that kind of self-analysis would almost kill a person.
4. BIG HUGE GIANT SPOILER
(run your mouse over the following to read)
In the course of the trial, Michael realizes that Hanna cannot read.
According to Kate Winslet, this one flaw colored Hanna's entire life. It's why she joined the SS, why she believed what was told to her instead of (written) facts, and why she confesses to ordering the other guards to leave those 300 women inside the burning church.
To Hanna, not being able to read is more humiliating than admitting to murder. Because she does not want anyone to know her secret, she takes full responsibility (even though she clearly did not have that authority) rather than expose her illiteracy.
And Michael, though he knows what she's doing, does not defend her (obviously leading to even more guilt on his part).
This ... as a teacher--and a reading teacher at that--really got me. Because it is a big deal not to be able to read but, at least in my experience, it's never been conflated to this position, where the inability to read can literally be the key evidence that condemns or redeems a person.
It reminds me that reading IS an important skill. I mean, even now, in the 21st century, there are millions of adults who cannot read, and millions more children who will never have the opportunity to learn. There are thousands of statistics I could give you concerning the relationship between illiteracy and prison populations, but I'll spare you the soapbox and just say ... WOW.
What an amazing, amazing message.
The Reader is a thought-provoking, devastating film. There's so much more to it than what I've written here; I saw it a week ago and I'm still thinking about it.