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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Normally, I'm one of those people who doesn't like to see movies that are adaptations of books until I've read the book that they're based on. I even read The Orchid Thief, and I still haven't seen Adaptation! While I like movies as entertainment, books are the purest form of art to me, so with adaptations I think of the books as the true story and movies as the remix (except The Notebook--it took what is a cloying melodrama and turned it into something worth rewatching, although it did benefit from having Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, who are gangbusters, starring).

I made an exception to this rule when I went to see The Reader, in my quest to see all the Oscar-nominated films before the Oscars actually happen (I will fail at this; I still have to see Frost/Nixon, and I don't see that happening this weekend). Weirder still: after I saw The Reader, I didn't really feel like I need to READ The Reader. I don't know, I just didn't feel like there was much left to get out of the story. However, I was drawn to the simple, restrained Germanic prose of the original novel and it only took one word, Bahnhofstrasse, (I love the sound of German place names) to make me pick it up.

The story begins in an unnamed West German town in 1958, when fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes sick with hepatitis (in the film it's scarlet fever, one of the handful of random changes I didn't understand, but isn't that always the way with adaptations?) and is assisted by an older woman whose courtyard he throws up in. Months later, after overcoming his illness, Michael goes back to thank Frau Schmitz (the only name he knows her by) and eventually an affair, initiated by her, becomes the consuming passion of the next six months. The establish a routine where he first reads aloud to Hanna from whatever books he is studying at school, and then they make love. This continues until Hanna unexpectedly leaves without warning or goodbye.

Several years later, Michael is a law student. As an assignment, he goes to watch the trial of six female guards from Auschwitz. Hanna is among them. The trial fascinates and horrifies Michael, as he is daily forced to come to terms with the fact that the first and only woman he loved could possibly have been a monster. Hanna is a terrible defendant, digging herself deep by relying on the truth (she admits things when they are true, and denies them when they are false) and leaves herself open to blame heaping from the five other defendants. To protect her biggest secret, Hanna takes full responsibility for something she could not have done and thus damns herself to a lifetime in prison. Later, much later, she and Michael slowly rebuild their friendship, although it never reaches anywhere near the crescendo of its first iteration and Michael is left at the end wondering what the gulf is between how much mercy he could have shown and how much he actually did.

The film follows the book almost to the letter, but wastes far more time with grown-up Ralph Fiennes Michael than the book and is the worse off for it. The film, helped along by the glowing beauty of Kate Winslet, also makes less of a point about how exploitive a relationship between two people with such a huge age difference (Michael at fifteen and Hanna at thirty-six) can be. Here's the trouble with seeing the movie first; Hanna is much more predatory, I think, in the book, but imagining her as Kate Winslet makes me sympathize with her more, so I'm not as taken aback by it. While I was watching the movie I wasn't very perturbed, but while reading the book I kept thinking, "There is something wrong with this." It doesn't help that she keeps calling him "kid" or "my kid" instead of his name, and that they go on a bicycle riding holiday where she pretends to be his mother. As for Michael's real mother, she barely figures into the book at all (but plays a much larger role in the movie), which speaks volumes and upon which another character actually comments.

I do think that the book is, in a way, a love story, but not a romantic one, which is what the movie seems determined to force it to be; instead, more and more I'm starting to think of the book as an allegory for Germany at the time, with Hanna and Michael's affair being the intimate relationship between the Nazi perpetrators and those who were born after or during the war, how responsibility and guilt is reconfigured with each subsequent generation, and what the limited options for atonement are. This is not an amazing insight; Schlink works on the theme pretty explicitly in the book. The situation raises all kinds of questions: How can you possibly forgive such a horrific crime, and what good is that forgiveness if you can grant it? Who are the Germans to be determining guilt, after all the suffering their country perpetrated? And who are we, who are the rest of the world, to be demanding that the children take on the sins of the fathers and mothers? This is a daily struggle STILL in Germany and Poland specifically; the world holds those countries to account, almost seventy-five years after the fact now, when almost everyone who has done harm is dead or dying. What is the point of that? What do we learn?

As much as I liked the book, it was the movie that brought home a haunting truth about the human condition. I'm not sure the book would've done the same, because Hanna (and Winslet's absolutely brilliant portrayal of her) is the deep, dark focus of her trial in the film, but in the book it is Michael and his coming to terms with Hanna's crime. As I sat there, looking at Kate Winslet's face as she talked about what she had done with such bewilderment, I realized that the great theological question that makes atheists out of so many is wrongly put. It is not "If there is a God, why do we suffer?" Suffering is not our curse. Suffering is nothing compared to the real unfairness of human life, which is that we have such a great capacity to cause suffering, but a far less capacity to alleviate it. We are abundantly talented when it comes to destruction; our abilities to create, though substantial, are miniscule in comparison.

That is the burden we bear as human beings. The things that we do to cause pain to others, purposefully or not, out of evil or out of ignorance, in many cases cannot be fixed. There is a threshold. It would take a time machine to undo the substantial damage the Holocaust has wrought. Nothing less will serve as reparations, which is why we are still talking about it, why it is still relevant. The wound has never healed, never even gotten close. We are all to blame, and we'll never get enough punishment.

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  1. Blogger chris | 2:33 PM |  

    DUDE. See Adaptation. I've never read the book, but I'd be interested in hearing a perspective from someone who has. What a great movie.

    I was actually shocked at how much I enjoyed The Reader. I was totally seeing it as homework too (I succeeded in seeing all five noms somehow, a report will be given Tuesday), but it was remarkably engrossing. If I could read a whole book's worth about it I don't know, but between their relationship, his struggle as a lawyer, and a Ralph Fiennes performance that didn't bore me to tears, it was really affecting. Especially the whole literacy aspect!

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