The World’s Most Successful Trade Show: this name, supplied by Mike G, helped me make peace with the Oscars this year. It is a trade show; the Oscars are not a critical body. That said, they’re a damn sight better than democracy, even if frequently, appallingly wrong. And, again, they are in fact a trade show, an attempt by the industry to promote itself and the values it esteems. All in all, I’m not sure they’re doing such a poor job. There are regularly seven to ten movies in a given year that I really love, and the Oscars are frequently the means of getting me to see the year’s best films, such as Entre les Murs (The Class), nominated for best Foreign Film, which I saw Saturday morning and deeply, deeply loved.
Andrew Sullivan is getting strangely dismissive about the enterprise. I can’t help but wonder: did he even see The Reader?
The Reader has been the subject of at least mild controversy. Ron Rosenbaum of Slate writes:
This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a “Holocaust film,” it must be worthy of approbation, end of story. And so a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that “ordinary Germans” were ignorant of the extermination until after the war, now stands a good chance of getting a golden statuette.
I’d like to zero in on one part of this statement: “…a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer…” (italics mine). Many of Rosenbaum’s other claims are straightforwardly dispensible via remotely responsible textual analysis, but what are we to make of Rosenbaum’s emphasis on empathy? The strangest thing about The Reader is how many people insist on calling it redemptive, a phenomenon that I think is rooted in this idea of feeling for another human being.
We humans have many stories of redemption, but The Reader is not one of them. Not remotely. It is, however, undeniably full of the subject of empathy, of fellow-feeling. Kate Winslett’s Hanna Schmitz is clearly and unarguably guilty of the particular crime recounted in the film; not only does she not seek forgiveness for it, she willfully accepts the blame and punishment for a greater responsibility in the crime than she actually had. The story does not in any way ask us to forgive Schmitz, but it does challenge us to feel with her. This is, I believe, what most people believe redemption to be.
If you can feel with a person, you do not morally censure her. If you acknowledge a villain to be a human being, you deny her evil.
This is a troubling, Manichean view of evil, as if evil is a substance that is incommensurate with humanity and feeling. It places sympathy as the standard for good, a troubling enough assertion. What bothers me most, though, is the way it places evil so profoundly outside of our own experience. We are, by definition, in sympathy with ourselves: what does it mean that this formulation of good and evil makes it impossible to see our own actions as evil, to feel all the complexities of our own experience without the possibility of that result being ultimately wrong?
The Reader deals with these ideas more subtly, more truthfully, and wrestles with issues of cross-generational guilt that are too relevant to us as Americans and inheritors of the legacy of American-Indian genocide and African slavery. It is in no simple way just another Holocaust movie, nor is Winslett’s performance in it anything less than astonishing. She deserves to be taken seriously, as does the film.