Kate Winslet’s Academy Award for Best Actress in The Reader surely disappointed and outraged Ron Rosenbaum. Amid the torrent of nonsense glutting US media since the movie award nominations were announced, Rosenbaum’s objections to The Reader were far more substantive and accusatory.
In his Slate column, Rosenbaum attacked the “essential metaphorical thrust” of the film, which he said aimed “to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.” Rosenbaum decried the notion of honoring “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…”
Rosenbaum indicted “the Kate Winslet character’s ‘illiteracy’: She’s a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to ‘read’ the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens. To which one can only say: What a crock!”
In fact it is a crock, a willful misreading of The Reader to lump it in with a genre of films which exploit the Holocaust (e.g., Life is Beautiful, winner of several Academy Awards). Bernard Schlink, author of the novel on which the film The Reader is based, told an interviewer in December: “It’s definitely not a movie about the Holocaust. It’s about a generation trying to come to terms with what they had to learn about their parents’ generation.”
But Rosenbaum’s Shoah sensitivities are Manichean. He concedes nothing to the moral and emotional complexities within or between the characters, especially in the film’s central relationship between Michael and Hanna.
Michael’s passionate affair with the much-older Hanna at first uplifts his adolescence. But when, as a law student, he witnesses her murder trial, along with other former Nazi concentration camp guards, he is devastated. Michael believes that Hanna has admitted to writing a report about the death of 300 Jewish prisoners, trapped in a burning church, in order to avoid revealing her illiteracy.
Michael tells his law professor (Bruno Ganz) that he has knowledge relevant to the trial, perhaps in the defendant’s favor. The older professor urges Michael to speak up: You don’t want to be like us and do nothing do you? Here Ganz is referring to his own silent wartime generation. But Michael cannot bring himself to visit Hanna during her trial, even though he knows her illiteracy has probably condemned her to a far greater penalty than her equally — or perhaps surpassingly — guilty comrades.
The other guards have no moral sense. But they are rewarded for their lies and stonewalling, receiving much lighter sentences than Hanna, who simply blurts out the truth, takes the rap and ends up sentenced to life in prison. She admits to having no moral sense, and therefore must be the more strongly condemned. Does this really create undue sympathy for Hanna, as Rosenbaum suggests? At the end of the film, an escaped victim (Lena Olin) explicitly asks the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) if he thinks Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt. And he says no.
As one of the law students in the film declares, the question is not who knew about the extermination of the Jews. There were hundreds of camps all over Europe. Everybody knew. “My parents, my teachers, everyone.” The question is, what did they do about it? The answer is: Nothing. As the student says to the bemused Ganz: “The only question is why you didn’t all just kill yourselves?”
Rosenbaum incorrectly accuses The Reader of claiming that most Germans were ignorant of the the Holocaust. The film’s underlying assumption is far more damning: everybody knew, but nobody acted on that knowledge. Of course, as Samantha Power recounts in her Pulitzer-Prize winning study of genocide, A Problem From Hell, the United States was also well aware of Hitler’s extermination of European Jewry before and during World War Two and also chose to do nothing.
Power’s book is a shocking indictment of American neutrality in the face of evil, during the Holocaust and other systematic programs of genocide all around the world — in Turkey, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and elsewhere — over the past hundred years. “The key question” writes Power, after presenting hundreds of pages of documented evidence, “… is: Why does the United States stand so idly by? The most common response is, ‘We didn’t know.’ This is not true.”
“Because the savagery of genocide so defies our everyday experience, many of us failed to wrap our minds around it,” Power says. “Bystanders were thus able to retreat to the ‘twilight between knowing and not knowing.’” It was easier not to probe for certainty because uncertainty did not demand any action. Power concludes that America failed to act against genocide not because the country lacked knowledge or influence but because it did not have the will to act. U.S. officials “were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.”
Now the United States faces a new moral crisis, the subversion of our own legal and moral values by high officials of our own government. We are, in this moment, as awash in complicity and willful denial as the principled middle-class denizens of the Third Reich. We are the Good Germans of the new millennium in Bush America because we knew about the illegal kidnappings and tortures, the self-serving legalisms that subverted the Geneva accords and papered over Constitutional lapses, the lies that led us into conquest and occupation. Starting well before the invasion of Iraq — which millions around the globe protested in unprecedented numbers before it occurred — we knew the “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam’s connections to al-Qaeda were bullshit excuses. But many millions of us tried to pretend that we really weren’t sure.
In his Sunday column entitled: “What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us,” Frank Rich remarked upon this “American reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago… Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable.” Or as Bob Dylan put it, in the context of race relations a generation ago, “How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
We know, deep inside us we know, as the Germans who kept their heads down and tried to lead ‘normal’ lives while genocide exploded all around them, in their name, by their own government, knew, that our government has committed terrible atrocities at home and abroad. If we do nothing to bring these crimes to light and their perpetrators to justice, then we are as guilty and worthy of moral condemnation as the war generation of silent Germans whom Ron Rosenbaum rightly abhors.
For Bernard Schlink, this knowledge, that his parents’ generation denied, “makes me aware how thin the ice is on which we live.” Schlink believed that German culture and institutions like courts, universities, churches, unions and political parties “all seemed so solid.” And yet it all broke down, “relatively easily.” In America too. Somehow we allowed our government to invade a country that had committed no aggression toward the United States. We allowed our government to declare an emergency in order to violate human rights of many thousands of individuals, to commit torture, to incarcerate people for years without trial or hearings of any kind. And today we continue the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan. We continue to jail and abuse individuals without charges. And we all know it’s wrong. And it’s time to deal with it before our “land of the free” is irreparably compromised.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has laid out The Case for a Truth Commission (Time, Feb 20). As Leahy says: “For much of this decade, we have read about and witnessed such abuses as the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the disclosure of torture memos and the revelations about the warrantless surveillance of Americans. We need to get to the bottom of what happened — and why — to make sure it never happens again… to find the truth….
“But to repair the damage of the past eight years and restore America’s reputation and standing in the world, we should not simply turn the page without being able first to read it…. We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong after a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law and values. The American people have a right to know what their government has done in their names.”
It’s not just our right. It’s a fundamental need. German society is still — and may always be — in recovery, not just from the atrocities committed in its name, by its leaders, but from the silent acquiescence of the millions who lacked the will to speak up against what they knew was wrong. To sweep the crimes and excesses of the Bush-Cheney years under the rug would destroy the American soul. The world needs the American sense of justice now more than ever. But we forfeit our moral authority if we do not take responsibility for the crimes of the Bush-Cheney years. Samantha Power is now an adviser to Barack Obama. Nobody knows better than she does the moral imperative for admitting and redressing the moral lapses of government. We must hope that she wields her influence to make the machinery of government responsive to the deepest needs of our culture. Karl Rove continues to flaunt congressional subpoenas to testify. He figures he can stonewall indefinitely, that there will be no day of reckoning for lawless U.S. officials. We must do everything in our power to prove him wrong.