Friday, February 27

The Reader

Catching up on the Oscars fever, last night I saw the movie The Reader. It is a post-War drama based on the best-selling novel by Bernhard Schlink. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the book, but watching the film, I was left drenched in many questions about love and humanity, as opposed to the morality and justice expected to be followed in our society- something we call Ethics. I have probably pondered these questions a time too many here in this blog, from the books that I’ve come across or movies that I’ve seen in the past. And well, it presented itself again.

I don’t want to explore the historical angle of the film, although briefly, it is about the time of the cataclysmic Holocaust where the character of Kate Winslet figured in a crime against the Polish Jews in Auchwitz. She was held accountable for the death of hundreds of men, women, and children, after allowing them to perish in the fire while working as a guard in Hitler’s concentration camp.

In 1958 Germany, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) was a middle-aged tram worker who came across a fifteen-year old Michael while she was walking home one rainy day and saw him retching near her apartment building. She helped him get home where he was diagnosed with scarlet fever. A few months after he recovered, Michael visited Hannah to thank her. The boy develops an almost immediate sexual curiosity about Hannah, although she was twice his age, and calls him "kid". Hannah was an unsmiling woman, gruff and stubborn. But an affair developed between them in no time. Despite her obstinate front, and a vast reserve of unspoken sadness, they seemed to fall into a sensuous sexual relationship. During their liaisons, Hannah would order Michael to read his schoolbooks to her after they make love. Together they explored the literature of Anton Chekov, and the Odyssey.

One day, she was told by her workmate that she had been promoted and would no longer be working in the tram, but inside the office. She didn’t take this news kindly, and she suddenly disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a confused and broken-hearted Michael.

Almost a decade later, when Michael is a law student, he comes across Hannah again He was observing a Nazi war crime trial, where she was a defendant, along with a few others who worked as guards in the concentration camp. She was singled out as having been responsible for drafting a report that put hundreds of Jews to a gut-wrenching tragedy. Michael was torn in the discovery of a horrific truth that the woman he once loved was guilty of a crime against humanity, and of personally betraying him. But in the course of trial, he also discovered Hannah’s most important secret, when he had brief flashes of memory---that she was illiterate, and could never read books nor write her name, and was visibly not capable of writing a damning report. So that he was suddenly caught up in the convolutions of being a man of law and upholding justice, and on the other hand having the power to speak out what he now knows, thereby helping Hannah reduce her prison sentence. He almost spoke of it, to his law professor, who quite perceptively suggested that what people feel or think isn't nearly as important as what they do.

As Michael's character is so layered---inflexible and deeply hurting at the same time, and probably even too young to see beyond the fact that he was shameful of his affair with Hannah and its unknown implications, he ended up keeping his secret and putting Hannah to life imprisonment. In fact, it can be drawn that he never talked about this dark part of his life to anyone, until very much later. After the court sentence was read, he sits on a train home devastated, retreating in the shadows of a dark corner.

The next second we see the same figure emerge from the shadows, but this time he is the middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) bearing sad eyes, and a face that mirrors years of emotional paralysis and the weight of guilt. He was divorced, and left his daughter to the care of his old mother. Alone in his new home, he goes through his old things, and makes voice recordings of a few books he used to read to Hannah. He sends them to her in prison. She fumbles with the player at first, but soon begins to enjoy listening to the stories, just like the old times. This started a new ritual between them, he was to send her many tapes afterwards, and Hannah, a stickler for cleanliness and order, would stack them neatly on the wall of her tiny prison cell.

Hannah, who was by now an aging woman, got up from the prison grounds one day and walked over nervously to the library to ask for a book, The Lady with a Dog by Chekov. She began to slowly decode the words that Michael was saying from the tape, and marked them on the book, initially encircling all of the “the”. Thus, began her self-education. Later she sends one-sentence letters to Michael, asking for more stories of adventure and romance. Michael never answered the letters. But he would continue to send tapes in parcels, for which she would eventually complete her education in reading and writing.

One day, Michael got a call from the prison ward telling him that Hannah was to be set free after 21 years because of her unblemished behavior in prison. He was the only known contact that they are aware of, as indeed there was no other character in the movie that was akin to her, nor was it a part of her that was explored in the story. Michael reluctantly visits her for the first time in prison after so many years. Their meeting was odd; he was perfunctory in his arrangement to get her a job and a place to stay. He was clearly mortified by seeing her again and thinking that he is thrown in the position where he is responsible for her amalgamation back to society, and back to his life. By this time, Hannah was a literate, and was reading a lot. She perceived the uneasiness in him, although once again, she was obstinate enough to not talk about it with him.

Later that week, she killed herself in her prison cell.

When Michael returned to get her, he discovered about her death. He was led to her cell and was given a tin box that contained a sum of money that Hannah had saved, and left instructions for him to hand it to the daughter of one of the holocaust victims. He also discovered writing on her wall, the first words she ever learned to write that were from the opening pages of Chekhov’s novel The Lady with a Dog.

He tried to redeem himself by visiting the woman in America, who wrote a book about their death march to Auschwitz. For the first time, he talked about his relationship with Hannah to her and how we was trying to make amends for all his guilt. With Hannah’s money, he proposed to set up a fund in her memory, to help fight illiteracy among the Nazi survivors. The movie ends back in Germany, with Michael and his daughter visiting Hannah’s grave, as he walks away with her, talking about the story that all started that rainy day in 1958.

The fact that the reader has characters that are deeply troubled, and are solely accountable for their failures, it is probably best to reason that man do reckon with their conscience many times in their lifetime, but the circumstances in their lives make them do things differently from what they believe in or feel. They run afoul of the behavior that is expected of them, thus putting their social or moral ethics in question, but it can’t necessarily mean they are evil.

The nuances of this film are too raw for me, there is nothing melodramatic, especially in the way Kate Winslet portrayed her character that was tough, and is perpetually troubled by something. You can see that she is not easy to be with; her face was fraught with sadness, a frown in the corners of her mouth, and almost a kind of physical fatigue that she’s had to deal with all her waking life. Yet, she is very strong and seems to be the commander of her life. She is not easily intimidated by emotions, but peels off a layer of herself once in while to make us construe that she is after all human. Forget about the fact that she was nude in many scenes, which reminds me that is how a married woman’s body is supposed to look like although she makes no bones about hiding it in any guise, and that is why I think that Kate Winslet is a gem.

But indeed, can one be part android and part human at the same time? Human in that she nursed a stranger in the streets and took him safely home, android in that she willingly gave her body away to a sexually charged fifteen year old boy with not much of a word. Human in that when she heard choir music, she was reduced to tears of joy, or was rapt in the story of the Odyssey. Android in that she unceremoniously left everything behind her one day, simply because she couldn’t be found dead in her dark secret, thus negating anything emotional that had been born out of her relationship with Michael. Human in that she was said to have been unusually kind to prisoners and had gathered a group Jewish women in prison every night to ask them to read out loud to her. But android, in that she sent the very same women to death row, because that was what she was ordered and paid to do.

She was living a life of contradiction, she sent herself to life in prison, and only because she was too proud and scared to be discovered an illiterate. Even towards the end of the film, she was caught up in her ambiguity, hanging herself in the cell because she could not stand having to inflict her unsolicited presence in Michael’s life. Once, while in the trial stand, she was questioned about her work as a prison guard. She reasoned that a new group of prisoners would come every time, and that there was barely enough room for everyone, so that they were given orders to send people to death camp in batches. A judge asked her why she even allowed this human atrocity to happen, there was a long awkward silence, and in her seemingly pure countenance, she answered “What would you have done”? To which, another long moment of silence ensued.

Yes, what would we have done indeed, when we are powerless to do something outside our abilities, when doing otherwise could have meant disrupting our little lives and standing up against people who are bigger than we are and who can take us over with malign abuses of their authority, mainly because they know they can do something that we can’t? Of course today, that is not a question anymore. But back then, she was illiterate, many were probably illiterate, and despite appearing to have no moral core, her question made a lot of sense. It leaves a question, too, how love in its unsullied form could be the same reason for people to betray, hurt, abandon, scar and shake up each other, just to be proper and ethical----while we all secretly come to grips with our collective guilt for something that we shouldn’t have done, but did; something we could have done, but did not---and how we can finally and completely learn to forgive everything.
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