On Christmas Day 2008, a movie entitled
The Reader, based on an autobiographical novel by German writer
Bernard Schlink, opened in theaters in America. The book was
an international best seller and it is very well known by Americans
because it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for one of her book club
The Reader stars Kate Winslet as Hanna
Schmitz, a German street car conductor in 1958, who formerly
worked as a prison guard at Auschwitz. Winslet won a Golden Globe
award for her convincing portrayal of a strong, no-nonsense German
woman, who speaks English with a German accent. After receiving
the award, Winslet said on the Oprah Winfrey show that The Reader
is a love story.
Although some Holocaust survivors complained that The Reader is too sympathetic
toward the fictional Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet won the Academy
Award for best Actress for her role.
The main character, Michael Berg, who
was born in 1943, is played by 18-year-old German actor David
Kross as a 15-year-old and by Ralph Fiennes as an older man.
The story of The Reader is about the
first postwar generation of Germans, born between 1943 and 1955,
and their struggle to come to terms with the crimes committed
by their parents' generation. Sometimes referred to as "the
68ers," this generation of Germans identified with the victorious
Allies and turned against the older generation whom
they viewed as perpetrators or bystanders during the world's
greatest crime, the Holocaust.
In 1995, when the movie begins, it is
the 50ieth anniversary of Germany's surrender in World War II
which the 68ers view as their "liberation from the Nazis."
Unlike their parents, the 68ers are ashamed
to be German: they don't fly the German flag, nor sing the German
national anthem. Instead, they side with the American occupation
and see World War II through the eyes of the victors. It is assumed
that the audience knows this and it does not have to be explained
in the movie.
The Reader starts with the Michael Berg
character being played by Ralph Fiennes. The first image that
flashes on the screen is a white egg cup with two decorative
black rings. There is a matching white coffee cup with a black
line on the handle. Is this supposed to be symbolic of something?
It immediately made me think of Germany where soft boiled eggs
are typically served in an egg cup. The dishes shown in the opening
scene are typical of the modern style of German furnishings which
I saw in 1995 when I visited Germany.
Then the movie quickly shifts into flashback
mode; it is 1958 and we see the Michael Berg character now being
played by David Kross. It is not immediately clear that the 15-year-old
German boy played by David Kross is the same person as the character
played by Ralph Fiennes in the first scenes.
I was impressed by the attention to detail
in the 1958 scenes. There is a water heater which uses coal,
and one can briefly see the flame under the heater. There is
a schrank or wardrobe where clothes are hung because German homes
had no closets in 1958. There is a down comforter, called a feather
bed by the Germans, which is still used in every German home,
although it was unknown in America at that time.
I lived in Erlangen, Germany in 1957
and the early scenes of this movie brought back many memories.
The city shown in the movie is Neustadt, which has dreary, run
down, gray buildings, much like the way Erlangen looked back
then. In the book, the city was not named.
In 1958, the older Germans, who were
the perpetrators of the Holocaust, didn't talk about their guilt.
On the contrary, they still had pictures of Hitler on their walls
and the German veterans of World War II were still singing the
Horst Wessel song every night in the beer gardens, even though
this was forbidden by the American occupation. However, none
of this is pointed out in the movie.
By 1958, the younger West Germans, like
Michael Berg, had been brainwashed by Allied propaganda. They
knew nothing about Nazi Germany except for the war crimes committed
by their parents' generation, which they were constantly reminded
of. They had seen the films about the concentration camps, but
not the films of the Nuremberg rallies and Hitler's speeches.
As Germans, they felt nothing but guilt and shame, while their
parents' generation was still reliving the glory days of Nazi
Germany and talking about the good things that Hitler did for
While living in Nuremberg in 1958, I
heard more than one older German say: "Hitler was a great
man - he got the Jews out of Europe." Not out of Germany
- out of Europe. The Jews had previously been expelled many times
from one country or another in Europe, but this was the first
time that all of the Jews in Europe had become the victims of
one man, Adolf Hitler.
In a trailer for the movie Valkyrie,
Tom Cruise says, regarding Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler,
that the conspirators were "taking down the greatest evil
ever known," meaning Nazi Germany. But in 1958, the majority
of the older generation did not consider the Nazis to be the
greatest evil ever known; they still thought of Nazi Germany
as a paradise.
The first part of The Reader is about
Michael Berg's love affair with Hanna Schmitz who is old enough
to be his mother and in fact, on a holiday trip, she is mistaken
for his mother by a waitress. Hanna loves to have Michael read
to her from the books that he is studying in school. In the book,
it is explained that Michael's father has written two books about
philosophy and that his family's home is filled with books, but
this is not mentioned in the movie.
The second part of the movie takes place
years later in the 1960s when Michael is a law school student.
His law professor, who hints at one point in the movie that he
is Jewish, is conducting a seminar about a trial of female German
war criminals that is taking place in a German court in an unnamed
city, an hour's drive from the University. He asks his students
to attend the trial four days a week and take notes for him;
the seminar is conducted on Fridays.
The defendants are former female guards
at Auschwitz and one of its sub-camps near Krakow. They are on
trial for crimes committed at the sub-camp and on a "death
march," not at Auschwitz. Michael is astonished to see that
one of the women on trial is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz,
who is now a pathetic shadow of her former self, having aged
In the movie, Michael's law professor
has previously pointed out to his students that the trials conducted
by the German courts are different from the proceedings of the
Nuremberg International Military Tribunal because the German
trials are based on German law. The German courts have to prove
individual intent to commit murder, and there has to be proof
beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the professor does not explain
that the military proceedings conducted by the Allies were based
on the new concept of co-responsibility, which means that any
person connected with the concentration camps or the Nazi regime
was guilty of participating in a "common design" to
commit war crimes, regardless of his or her personal behavior.
The defendants at Nuremberg were chosen, not because their crimes
were the most heinous, but because they represented one particular
aspect of Nazi Germany. The purpose was to show that all Germans
were guilty, even a journalist who wrote anti-Semitic articles
for a German newspaper. After the Allied victory over Germany,
the only German heroes were traitors like Claus Schenk, Graf
von Stauffenberg, who had tried to kill Hitler.
There was a real life war crimes trial,
conducted in Frankfurt, Germany starting on December 23, 1963
and ending on August 19, 1965, where 20 SS soldiers who had formerly
worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were put
on trial. They were all low-level personnel who were not important
enough to have been put on trial by the Polish courts after the
In 1977, another war crimes trial was
held in Frankfurt in which the defendants were two SS men charged
with killing Jews in the Auschwitz sub-camp of Lagischa and on
a "death march." The trial in the movie is loosely
based on these Frankfurt trials.
The British conducted a military tribunal
in Lüneberg, Germany in September 1945, at which some of
the accused were female guards who had formerly worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau
before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. As a result of these
proceedings, a former SS auxiliary guard named Irma Grese became
world famous. She was accused of helping with selections for
the gas chamber, one of the charges that was also made against
Hanna Schmitz in the movie.
Irma Grese was not well educated; she
had left school after finishing the 8th grade. Like the Hanna
Schmitz character in the movie, Irma Grese was very naive and
partly admitted her guilt at her trial. She was hanged at the
age of 21 and because of her bravery in the face of death, she
has become a heroine to the Neo-Nazis today. An SS man who was
noted for being uneducated was Hans Aumeier, who was stationed
at Auschwitz-Birkenau until he was relieved of his duties by
Commandant Rudolf Höss because of his "corrupt practices."
Aumeier was turned over to the Polish Court by American intelligence
officers, after first being indicted by the American Military
Tribunal at Dachau.
In the movie, Hanna Schmitz confesses
in order to avoid revealing her secret shame: she is illiterate.
This could be interpreted as symbolic of the moral illiteracy
of her generation which claims that they did not know that what
they were doing was morally wrong.
At the real life Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt,
the 20,000 people, who attended at least one of the sessions,
were appalled by the lack of shame or remorse shown by the defendants.
The 68ers, like Michael Berg, couldn't comprehend why the older
generation had committed such crimes; how could anyone justify
or forgive the crimes of their parents, or in Michael's case,
the crimes of a lover old enough to be his mother.
From the book, we learn that Hanna was
an ethnic German living in Rumania before she went to Berlin
to get a job at the age of 16. The movie should have explained
this because it would have been very unusual to find someone
living in Germany who had never learned to read and write. Regarding
the concentration camp guards, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant
of Auschwitz, testified at the Nuremberg IMT that "We had
thousands of guards who could hardly speak German, who came from
all lands as volunteers..."
At the trial, Michael finally realizes
that Hanna is illiterate and he has to make a choice between
keeping quiet, or revealing her secret which would have resulted
in Hanna being given a light sentence of 4 years and 3 months,
like the other women on trial. If he comes forward as a witness,
Michael will have to divulge his own secret: his affair with
an older woman at the age of 15. From what little we have seen
of Michael's straight-laced family, we know that they would not
Michael decides not to reveal the information
that would have helped Hanna; she is sentenced to life in prison,
but her secret is safe and so is his.
One of Hanna's crimes was that she had
allowed 300 Jewish women to burn to death in a church. After
the Auschwitz camp was abandoned in January 1945 because the
Soviet Army was advancing across Poland, the prisoners were taken
on several separate "death marches" to Germany where
they were put on trains and transported to other concentration
camps. On the way, they stopped at night to sleep in barns or
whatever shelter they could find. In the book, it is explained
that the marchers from a sub-camp of Auschwitz, that Hanna was
guarding, stopped one night in an abandoned village where the
guards slept in the priest's house while the prisoners were locked
inside the church.
During the night, the steeple of the
church was hit by a bomb and eventually the whole church went
up in flames. There was plenty of time for Hanna and the other
guards to have unlocked the church doors, but they had their
own problems because the house where they were sleeping had been
bombed and there was complete chaos, according to the book.
Hanna and the other female guards were
charged with a war crime because they had refused to unlock the
church to save the women. One woman and her daughter survived
by climbing up to the narrow "gallery" of the church
and standing with their backs to the wall. The church was apparently
made of stone and only the rafters and the wooden church pews
burned. The next day, the two survivors were able to escape from
the church since the steps to the gallery were still intact,
but the doors had burned in the fire.
The book is fiction, but curiously the
author did not have the two women, who survived, jump out of
a window. What kind of a church has no windows?
The story of the Jewish women being burned
to death in a church is reminiscent of what happened during World
War II at Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village, where 452 women
and children were locked inside a church by German Waffen-SS
soldiers and allowed to burn to death in June 1944. Two women
managed to escape from the Oradour-sur-Glane church by jumping
out of a window; one woman lived to be a witness at the French
trial of the SS men after the war. Similarly, the daughter who
survived the fire in the locked church testified against Hanna
and the five other guards in a German court. In the book, the
mother had emigrated to Israel and she gave a deposition, but
did not attend the trial.
When asked why she didn't unlock the
church and let the Jewish women out, Hanna Schmitz said that
her job was to guard the prisoners and keep them from escaping.
This was the same excuse given by the
Germans who put prisoners from a death march into an unlocked
barn in Gardelegen in April 1945, then shot those who tried to
escape when a fire started in the barn. In the Gardelegen story,
the Germans justified their actions by claiming that the prisoners
would have raped and pillaged and killed civilians in the town
of Gardelegen if they had been allowed to escape. A few of the
men in the Gardelegen barn did manage to escape by digging tunnels
underneath the walls and doors of the burning barn with nothing
but a tablespoon and their bare hands.
During Hanna's trial, we learn that she
first started having someone read to her when she forced young
girls at the sub-camp near Krakow to read to her. Other reviewers
of this movie have speculated that Hanna was abusing these girls
sexually, although this was not mentioned in the book. In the
book, the author writes that Hanna selected weak girls to put
under her protection, then gave them extra food and excused them
At the trial, the female guards testified
that the six of them had to each select 10 prisoners to send
back to Auschwitz each month. Hanna would always select the young
girls who had read to her. Hanna admits during the trial that
60 prisoners were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz each
month to make room for 60 new prisoners to work in the factories
of the sub-camp.
Some people might question whether an
illiterate, female SS auxiliary guard would have been allowed
to make selections for the gas chamber, but this is the same
crime that Irma Grese was accused of by female Auschwitz survivors.
It is important to note that Irma Grese testified that she learned
about the existence of the gas chambers only because the prisoners
told her about them. In the movie, it is not explained how the
female guards knew that the prisoners, whom they were selecting
to send back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, were being gassed.
In her testimony, Hanna mentions that
she was working for the Siemens company in Berlin when she answered
an ad for guards to work at the concentration camps. In the book,
it was pointed out that she was offered a promotion at Siemens,
but couldn't accept it because she couldn't read, so that's why
she volunteered to be a concentration camp guard. In the movie,
Hanna says that she "joined the SS" of her own free
will, which was important in establishing her guilt.
When Hanna testified that she had voluntarily
chosen to be a perpetrator, that was the proof of her intent
to commit murder, which was required for conviction according
to German law. It is also why she could never be forgiven by
the survivors and by the Germans of Michael's generation.
The proof of the crime of deliberately
allowing the Jewish women to be burned alive in the church consisted
of a written report about the incident. The other defendants
at the trial all claim that Hanna wrote the report, and the judge
asks Hanna for a sample of her handwriting to compare with the
handwriting on the report. Hanna finally confesses that she did,
in fact, write the report because she cannot admit that she cannot
write anything more than her name. To her, illiteracy is more
shameful than the mass murder of innocent Jewish women.
Some reviewers have questioned the historical
accuracy of the Nazis "policing themselves" by doing
an investigation of an atrocity which involved writing reports,
such as the report about the women being burned to death in the
church. There was a real life incident at the Budy sub-camp of
Auschwitz, called the "Budy revolt," in which 90 French
Jewish women were killed by the SS female guards. According to
the official web site of Auschwitz, "The
massacre of the French Jewish women prisoners took place in early
October. Using clubs, hatchets, and rifle butts-and throwing
some of their victims from the windows in the loft of the building-female
prisoner functionaries and SS guards butchered 90 women. The
camp administration investigated the incident, but failed to
discover the cause."
While he is trying to decide what to
do about his feelings for his former lover, whom he now knows
is a war criminal, Michael goes to visit a former concentration
camp, which is not identified, but it appears to be the Majdanek
death camp near Lublin, Poland. We see him walking into the shower
room at Majdanek where the prisoners had to take a shower before
entering the gas chamber in order to warm their bodies to make
the gas kill them faster.
Then we see Michael enter one of the
warehouse buildings at Majdanek where 800,000 pairs of shoes
are still stored in wire bins. The warehouse is pitch black and
the shoes are barely visible, but a golden light shines on Michael's
head and follows him as he walks deep inside the dark building.
The scene brings out the theme of the movie, which is that Michael
is an innocent 68er with a light shining down on him because
he does not share the guilt of the Germans who murdered 1.5 million
people at Majdanek, according to the charges of the Soviet Union
Near the end of the movie, Michael comes
to terms with his feelings about the older generation of German
war criminals and decides to help Hanna start her life over after
she has served 20 years in prison. But Hanna inexplicably decides
to kill herself the day before she is to be released. Where have
we heard this before?
The author of the book seems to have
used several true stories to put together his novel: Ilse Koch,
perhaps the most famous female war criminal of World War II,
killed herself in prison after serving exactly 20 years of a
life sentence handed down by a German court which put her on
trial in 1947. Ilse Koch was the "bitch of Buchenwald,"
who had prisoners killed so that she could have lamp shades made
from their tattooed skin. While she was imprisoned at Dachau,
awaiting trial, Ilse Koch became pregnant, but when her son was
born, he was taken away from her. Twenty years later, her son
came to visit her. The night before another scheduled visit by
her son, Ilse Koch killed herself.
In a scene near the end of the movie,
Michael goes to the expensive, luxurious New York apartment of
the daughter whose testimony put Hanna in prison for 20 years.
Living well is the best revenge, and it seems that the daughter
has gotten her revenge for what she suffered at the hands of
Hanna has a handwritten will in which
she leaves all the money that she earned in 20 years in prison
to the survivor daughter, who refuses to take it, although she
does accept the tin canister in which Hanna kept the money. It
turns out that the canister is similar to the one that the daughter
brought with her to Auschwitz, filled with her keepsakes. The
daughter laments that her tin canister was stolen from her and
she accepts Hanna's tea tin as restitution.
Michael tries to convince the daughter
to accept Hanna's money and give it to a Jewish charitable organization
that works to combat illiteracy; the daughter comments that there
is not much of an illiteracy problem among the Jews. At this
point, the audience might begin to see Hanna as the victim.
Hanna was born in October 1922 according
to the book. Hanna's family might have been destitute when she
was a child, which would explain her lack of schooling. Perhaps
she had to work as a child instead of getting an education.
This is a movie that will make some people
uncomfortable because they might find themselves feeling sorry
for a German war criminal. The cold, unforgiving, imperious attitude
of the daughter at the end of the movie does not show her as
the victim, but rather generates sympathy for Hanna who spent
20 years in prison rather than admit that she was illiterate.
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