March 04, 2009

Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" - Exploring the Ramifications of Illiteracy in Post War Germany?

The curse of illiteracy haunts Hanna, the female protagonist in the movie "The Reader", and it is a curse she is not ready to disclose to the world, not even to her 15 year old paramour Michael, with whom she establishes a relationship defying all social norms of the day. The fact that the movie depicts a post war Germany is important in so far as it gives a context to the heinous crime Hanna commits after she disappears from young Michael's life.

The relationship between Hanna, a forty year old illiterate bus conductor in Germany during the 1950s, and Michael, a 15 year old school boy, is driven by passion. However, the nature of their passion differs at both ends. For Michael, the teenager, it is about wanting to experience and explore his sexuality, and for Hanna, who is illiterate, it is about wanting to hear what is in those books and novels that she is incapable of reading. Both have different expectations from the relationship, and yet it flowers because of the intensity of their individual passions. I think Daldry, the director, deliberately introduced those torrid love making scenes between the two for the reader to sense how the passion burned within them. Since Daldry could not visually depict the cerebral passion that drove Hanna, he hoped the viewer would be able to gauge it by looking at what Hanna was prepared to do, to sexually gratify a 'kid', in order to live out her own passion for stories. Does that mean that Hanna was completely uninvolved with the 'kid' as she always refers to him? That's a question you'll have to figure out when you watch this movie based on Bernard Schlink's novel published in German in 1995.

The film maker and the writer have been accused of trying to assuage the guilt of Germans who lived during or immediately after the Holocaust. However, I am not so sure the Holocaust was the real focus of the film; it is illiteracy that seems to take center stage: its far reaching effects, and what it can do to a life. What ultimately happens to Hanna in the story is self explanatory; there is no condoning the Holocaust or Hanna's part in it, but there is an implicit pointer embedded in the film telling us that Hanna's role could have been different had she had the ability to make informed decisions. Alas, it was her shame and misfortune to be illiterate and thus uninformed, and that cost her not just her own life, but also the lives of 300 others!

All through the movie Hanna is consumed by her shame of being illiterate, something which Michael is able to transform into passion at two separate times in Hanna's life. The first time he does it inadvertently while satiating his own juvenile sexual fantasies, but the second time he does it with the awareness of a friend who knows how much stories, and reading them, mean to Hanna.

Clearly, the writer wants to send a message here that reading adds new dimension to human awareness and is therefore crucial to our decision making ability. It is particularly important to those of us who live alone, or who are private/reserved by nature and share little with the world, except vicariously through books and other multimedia productions. In some of our 'developed nations' we often take literacy for granted, and this movie, "The Reader", takes us back in time to show us a horrific impact of illiteracy in Hanna's world of post war Germany. Illiteracy is definitely the villain in the story since it holds potential to bring untold shame and horror to those who house it; like it did to Hanna and the other prison guards in "The Reader".

I may have looked too long and too deep into this movie so you may want to watch it simply because Kate Winslet gives an amazing performance in this movie as a reluctant seductress, a heartless guard, and a confused war criminal with an indescribable passion for books.

13 comments:

cubano said...

I saw this film a few weeks ago and I agree with you that it was more about illiteracy than the holocaust. The performances were brilliant but I thought that the storyline was somewhat predictable.

EXSENO said...

I'm hesitant about this one. I don't care for May/ December romances, so I hope it's not a Mrs. Robinson sort of movie.
But I've never been disappointed in anything that you have reviewed, so I took a peek at the trailer, the trial caught my attention. So I'll be renting it after all.

Eshuneutics said...

I am interested in how you re-orientate the nature of this film. About a year ago I came across a stall (at a bookfair) selling original Nazi reading books for children. Frightening. I nearly bought one, so as I could show others what evil looked like. I also wanted to be reminded of the deception taking place: books made in the name of literacy were written to guarantee that a populace remained illiterate--never sought after alternative narratives. There is frightening description in HD's "Tribute to Freud" of a "literacy" bombing raid in which a city is blitzed by pro-Nazi leaflets from the sky. Central to Hitler's coming to power was the Burning of the Books. Illiteracy is a powerful metaphor for a failure to read humanity; and from that: the Holocaust.Your insights here are so different from the mundane love interpretations available in the UK.

Id it is said...

Eshu,
I was a trifle hesitant to post on this interpretation, and I'm glad you saw my point of view. There are friends who think I forced that theme out of the movie! However, you point out so aptly that illiteracy is really a metaphor for failure; I would extend it further it is a metaphor for stagnation even death (of sorts). It's the suffocation of independent input to the human brain thereby deadening its ability to make discretionary choices.
You're right about the propaganda that was carried out during the holocaust which also prevented independent input to the Germans at the time, and they made do with all the propaganda literature they got, and almost willingly became guilty of having let the Holocaust happen.

Tazeen said...

i agree to your post but I still think that Kate Winslet was not that great in this film. On the other hand, Ralph Fiennes was stupendous and he was not even mentioned by anyone.

Dr. Deb said...

I doubt that you looked too deeply into this movie. Friends have said similar things about it.

D said...

It's a famous saying in my part of the world, the translated version goes on like this -- "Where the sun doesn't reach, a poet does."

But nonetheless, i liked the review of the movie you've done. Mostly till now i only read about the reunion of LDC and Winslet, love scenes and the acting of the stars in the movie...so this review came as a relief.

As far as Eshu comments...you won't believe "Mein kempf" is one of the highest selling books in India. I don't know if it is banned in Europe and US.

Third, the events at Lahore were really tragic. It's a loss for cricket. Pak crickteres are much loved in India as well, more than SL players. It's a pity that we won't see much of cricket between India & Pak. And perhaps no cricket at all in Pak.

Eshuneutics said...

"Mein Kampf" is readily available at Amazon: not banned. How interesting...popular in India, D! The primers for children have a snake-like evil whereas "MK" is blatant in its prejudice.

Georg said...

Hallo Id,

Being German I wonder how someone obtains a bus driver permit while illiterate. As a nation, we are madly in love with rules based on heaps of paper work.

That reminds me a sentence in one of Alfred Jarry's plays "Ubu Roi" (King Ubu) where he says: "the action takes place in Poland meaning nowhere".

Georg

berenice said...

another great review of a must-see film, hope i can catch this one soon, along with the Slumdog, i miss watching films on the big screen, sadly too busy, but at least reading your review is a splash of 'goodness' thank you!

Nandi23 said...

Definitely will watch!

Sildenafil said...

What I like about this movie is Hanna, the female protagonist is so talented and sentimental, and she knows how to carry the movie's sequence, that's the best.

pharmacy said...

I've heard that this movie has been one of the best ones, that's perfect because I want to read something else about it, actually I know that I'll never forget this book because that's something terrific according to things I've heard about it.