Part of illustration by Ragni Svensson

Essays Flirt with a Holocaust Crime. Stephen Daldry’s and David Hare’s Film the Reader

An analysis of the film The Reader, based on the book of the same name. The film’s perspective on individuals’ behavior during the Holocaust makes coming to terms with acts of the past impossible – which itself invalidates the entire film.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 22-25, Vol II:2, 2009
Published on on February 12, 2010

article as pdf 15 Comments on Stephen Daldry’s and David Hare’s Film the Reader Share
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Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader (Der Vorleser 1995; in Swedish, Högläsaren 1997) is an international bestseller and is often included in the curriculum of German public schools. The book is considered a didactic example of how conformist thinking on moral issues can be avoided: a perpetrator’s background story may turn out to be complex and even tragic, while, unexpectedly, a victim may turn out to be, in some sense, blameworthy.

But this emphasis on similarities between Holocaust victims and perpetrators comes with an ethical risk, if emotions take over — the overwhelmed audience is supposed to be gradually prepared for the perpetrator’s redemption.

While Daldry’s previous film The Hours (2002) — about Virginia Woolf — did not carry the earmarks of a typical Hollywood movie, his most recent production The Reader, which was shown at the Berlinale 2009, alludes back to the Hollywood canon and to the particular segment of popular culture that deals with Germany and the Holocaust. In particular, the assemblage of famous Hollywood stars — all of whom, by their presence, refer to other well-known films (Kate Winslet was in the Titanic, Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient, Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang) — makes the film differ from the novel in a striking, even provocative, manner. Might the film function as a commentary on the book, by shedding new light on Schlink’s juxtaposition of trial by love and trial by a court of law? Is it not true that the female perpetrator is presented from an Orientalist perspective? Does the main character, the reader, in fact suffer from a German post-war depression and sexual neurosis? The film may ultimately reveal the revisionist notion contained within Schlink’s novel.

The Storyline

West Germany in the late fifties: Hanna Schmitz, a tram conductor, and 15-year-old Michael Berg become lovers. Michael is a schoolboy with an upper middle-class family background. While the two are dating, Michael reads aloud to Hanna, who rewards him with her love. Their summer love affair comes to a sudden end, but seven years later they meet again: Hanna as the accused in a Holocaust crime trial and Michael as a law student. It appears that Hanna has been a concentration camp guard. She was involved in the process of selecting prisoners for deportation. In this capacity, she would force prisoners to read aloud to her. In return, the prisoners would win a temporary reprieve from deportation.

Hanna is charged with 300 cases of murder, because she and four other guards refused to rescue prisoners from a burning church. Hanna explains their failure to assist the prisoners by referring to her duties as a guard.

At the trial, Michael, alone among all the members of the audience, suddenly realizes that Hanna is illiterate. Over the years, she has had great difficulties keeping up the pretence of literacy and has had to change jobs whenever an unwanted promotion threatened to reveal her handicap. Under no circumstances does Hanna want to be exposed as an illiterate, even though the discovery of such a handicap might lead to a lighter sentence. Is illiteracy associated with greater shame than mass murder?

According to his own logic, Michael is guilty in two respects: he was “in bed with the German Holocaust”; but he also abandoned Hanna because he felt suppressed in the relationship.

While Hanna is in prison, Michael sends her tapes with recorded readings of literary works. He cannot stop reading aloud to her, but he never speaks or writes to her in person.

In prison, Hanna gradually learns to read and write. The interplay between the two turns into sort of a platonic correspondence course.

After having spent 18 years in prison, Hanna commits suicide — one day prior to her scheduled release.

At the end of the novel, Michael looks up the surviving people who were involved in the church murder. He also visits Hanna’s grave.

The book’s storyline is highly intricate. It intermingles aspects of shame, guilt and love in a manner that places the focus on particular circumstances rather than on universal norms. It is an example of intimate, passionate extremes being construed as the standard situation. This paradoxical construction has particularly great impact on the book’s political message, as it suggests that fair judgment is virtually unattainable.

The movie trailer sequence clearly brings to mind a psychoanalytical case study. Michael Berg speaks to a person whom the spectator might intuitively suppose to be a female therapist, but who turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. She is one of those who survived being locked up in the burning church, and she identified Hanna in court. In the therapist setting, the survivor, who is wearing a white dress, offers Michael absolution. She turns down the money that Hanna has left her, but she accepts an old tin box that reminds her of her own childhood. By placing this tin box next to a photograph of her family, the survivor grants Hanna redemption. The perpetrator Hanna and the victim are no longer opposites; Hanna becomes almost a distant relative of the group of victims. The crime is finally, somehow, forgiven.

Michael Berg – the crisis of the “German patient”

To compensate for his feelings of guilt, Berg has to develop — from being a “reader” to being a “Holocaust story teller”. He finally passes on his life story to the next generation. In the film, Berg’s confession to his daughter takes place in the cemetery where Hanna is buried.

The choice of the church as location for the film’s sentimental ending is striking. The film emphasizes Michael’s position and reduces Hanna to an eye-catching, foreground antagonist. The masculinity crisis, which is transformed into a male, post-war sexual neurosis, can be healed if Michael comes to terms with the impact that the Holocaust has had on him as a person. The film thus risks falling into the same revisionist (mis-)understandings that are already to be found in the novel.

In the screenplay, Kate Winslet plays the role of a common, uneducated lower class Nazi perpetrator, whereas actors Ralph Fiennes (Michael as an adult) and David Kross (Michael as a boy) represent the academic middle class. Through a strategy of Othering, the criminal activity becomes localized in an illiterate female person. Her social subordination is associated with vital and undistorted sexuality, a very common literary trope (see also the maid, the shop assistant, the waitress and so on). From this point of view, we may draw two possible conclusions. First, Hanna’s illiteracy makes her easy to manipulate, and possibly explains her character defect. She joined the SS in the fall of 1943 (!) because she did not know any better. Second, evil is associated with the “primitive” female, the mysterious and inscrutable being, the unsolvable riddle. This may be a strategy aimed at projecting Holocaust guilt, at banishing it to the realm of the irrational.

The story purports to interweave the educational and the erotic processes. For Hanna, meeting Michael is the beginning of an educational process. For Michael, their relationship is an Oedipal drama.

Until Hanna has completed her education in the prison, she is more afraid of being revealed as an illiterate than as someone who has committed crimes during the Nazi era. Only as an educated person can she truly regret what she has done. In Schlink’s novel, Hanna’s remorse is enforced by her reading material: books written by Holocaust survivors, scholarly literature on the Third Reich — for example, Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann (p. 193) — and last but not least, research on female perpetrators in the Third Reich (p. 194).

In contrast to the book, the film does not give this insistently moralistic account of the educational project and the reading of German classics. Hare and Daldry emphasize more entertaining aspects of the narrative: young Michael, for example, reads Lady Chatterley’s Lover aloud while in the bathtub, and even reads aloud from the comic strip Tintin. Hare also lets Hanna write a short letter from prison: “Send more romances.”

According to both the novel’s and the film’s story line, Hanna was “forced” to join the SS and become a prison guard, as a promotion at Siemens threatened to reveal her illiteracy.

In accordance with her limited conception of the world, she wants to fulfill her duty and, as the novel occasionally stresses, she is, in spite of her shortcomings, not without social ambitions.

After Hanna has become an educated individual in the prison, it dawns on her that her feelings of shame and guilt should be proportionate to the seriousness of their causes: the feelings of guilt over the murders must take first place, not the egocentric embarrassment caused by an insufficient education. But it is noteworthy that Hanna never reaches the state of being a full citizen. She remains deficient and is therefore never completely responsible for her actions.

The fact that Hanna eventually does reach a state of maturity is expressed rather cynically in the film: it is as an individual subject that she arranges a number of books in a stack on her prison-cell table, climbs on top of this stack and hangs herself. This scene does not occur in Schlink’s novel. Is the film making a comment on Schlink’s motto: thank God for a literary education, now Hanna is capable of judging herself? Hanna’s ugly feet, which graze the book jackets and make smacking noises when she moves, is a highly ambivalent comment on her vigilantism. To some extent, the film accentuates the humanistic dogma that informs Schlink’s novel, the naive belief in humanistic refinement. The prison is staged as if it were a convent where a refined but aging Hanna is waiting for Michael. In Hanna’s and Michael’s former relationship, her age had given her an advantage over Michael; it had led to his subordination. Now, her aging becomes a measure of her loss of power, and of the impossibility of crossing the threshold that separates the two. In the film, more clearly than in the novel, Michael’s rejection of Hanna appears to be the main reason for her suicide.

Sharing the bed of an illiterate: Transforming a taboo

What is Michael, the German patient, actually afraid of? In the beginning of the film, a lot of attention seems to be drawn to Hanna’s conductor’s uniform, especially to the black leather straps that cross on her back. In a broader sense, the fascination with women in uniform alludes to Michael’s fear of being sexually deviant. The narrator of the novel Der Vorleser is conscious of Michael’s Oedipus complex and openly cites a comment made by a female psychoanalyst who recommends that the adult Michael reappraise his relationship to his mother (cf. p. 166). The Oedipus constellation can be used, primarily, to invoke destiny. In Michael’s case, however, the Oedipal dilemma develops into a twofold sense of guilt: first, the feeling of guilt caused by being in love with a mass murderer, and second, guilt associated with a sexual deviation, which may be incest (or some other desire, which is encoded in incest and which the protagonist experiences as threatening):

I had not just loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to convince myself that, when I chose her, I had no knowledge of what Hanna did. I tried to convince myself that I was in a state of innocence, like that of children loving their parents. But the love for one’s parents is the only kind of love for which one cannot be held responsible. (p. 162)

Hanna combines the caring character of the mother with erotic attraction, as well as with control and discipline. In the film, this is exemplified by her almost obsessive washing of Michael’s body. She is a watchful guard, a caring nurse and an experienced lover. The obsessive manner in which Hanna washes Michael brings to the fore the pathology of their relationship, but it also reveals her motherly feelings towards him, as does the nickname for Michael, “Jungchen” (kid). The novel’s adult narrator admits that as a child Michael’s greatest pleasure was to be washed by his mother in a warm bathroom (p. 29). In the novel, Hanna’s vigorous washing of Michael perhaps encodes the erotic delight of the young Oedipus and shrouds his shameful desire for the mother.

Actually, Daldry and Hare decide to demonize Hanna’s washing, as they associate it with Third-Reich hygienic measures (the care for the “Volkskörper”?). Hanna’s undistorted sexuality coalesces with the idea of the healthy, disciplined body. At the same time, the film conveys a notion of hysterical, compulsory washing: views of public bathrooms in concentration camps and of gas chambers are integrated in the film’s story line.

Hanna’s taboo is the receptacle for Michael’s taboo of Oedipus. A generation of fathers was accused of being weak, of being easily influenced, of lacking a distinct attitude and active approach to Germany’s recent past. According to the popular psychoanalytical interpretation, Michael does not want to get rid of these fathers because of their ignorance. Rather, he seeks to abolish them because they are his rivals. He longs for the mother, or an embodiment of her.

When Michael sees Hanna standing accused in court, he is confronted by his own fascination with a dominant partner. He explains the recent cooling of his feelings towards Hanna by referring to the intoxicating   influence of his work in court (the Frankfurt Trials) and with German post-war apathy. Michael is becoming inured to violence. He morally condemns this apathy and considers his whole reaction emotionally deviant.

Of course, the Holocaust setting is more than just background decoration. Still, the psychological focus on the female taboo of illiteracy does indeed reduce the seriousness of the debate on the persecution of Holocaust crimes.

In the novel, the narrator (the “I”) brings up the young Michael’s fantasies about women clad in black uniforms and wielding riding crops, though he admittedly categorizes these props as image-clichés (pp. 140–142). In the process of dealing with the past, Michael is encoding Hanna on a third level, no longer as the Other in terms of class and gender (the vitalistic underdog, pp. 77 and 185), no longer as a nurse-mother-guard, but as a metonymic part of the necessary reflections about coming to terms with the German Holocaust. The images become obscene when they consist of clichés.

I knew that these imaginations [women in uniform-fantasies] were poor clichés. They did not do justice to Hanna. Despite this they had great power. They fragmented the memory imaginations and combined them with the pictures from the concentration camp I had in mind. (p. 142)

This may be a self-reflecting comment on Schlink’s humanistic educational project and his work on the process of remembering. It illuminates the embarrassing power of shameful “dirty popular culture” and alarming desires. The film ignores these aspects, and willingly integrates popular reading.

To some degree, the film confirms and strengthens the novel’s Freudian theme: When Hanna is in prison, and therefore less of a threat to Michael, he is given a chance to suppress the memory. The novel’s narrator describes this interim period in Freudian terms: instead of the “I” there is an “IT”: “Es, was immer es sein mag, handelt [..]” (It, whatever it may be, is acting …p. 22). Michael reaches the position of the “I” when the reader, at the end of the novel, turns into a storyteller and a writer.

The fact that “judging” and “understanding” are incompatible (p. 152) gives rise to a dilemma, which runs through the novel as a moral red thread (referring to some key words in Arendt’s works). The author, Schlink, has in fact been a judge. To describe the dilemma in words corresponds to a gendered view: according to Schlink, one cannot at the same time judge and understand, and even the male and the female order have to be clearly distinguished.

It is a “sin” to cross the borders, or to confuse the concepts. This sin even overshadows the Holocaust crime. For Michael, Hanna’s death is a final release, because the Oedipus constellation vanishes. In the film, his destiny is storytelling, or oral history. In the novel his professional future is, on the one hand, that of a judge and, on the other, that of an educator and a writer.

Are you cheating me?

The film reinforces the novel’s manipulative potential, but at the same time it provides a novel critique of Oedipus’s blindness in the book. The audience is lured into giving a sentimental answer to the question: is it not time to forgive this most pitiful of perpetrators?

Hanna’s shame places her outside the common rules of society, she personifies the exceptional perpetrator. Therefore, perhaps, even her punishment seems too harsh. We can call this an “Orientalist” strategy “towards war criminals”.

The particular, tragic aura turns perpetrators like Hanna into exceptional cases. Their crimes and their consequences lose significance — a scenario with clear revisionist undertones. Somehow the film, more than the novel, continues to mete out the sort of lenient, helpless and compromising sentences that characterized the Frankfurt trials.

According to both the film and the novel, it is impossible to evaluate the complicated, individual case. For this reason, entering into a political debate about confronting the past hardly makes sense. Even the moral chaos and the hopeless dilemma confronted by the judge, who cannot simultaneously understand and judge, may serve as arguments for a reconciliation. It simply seems to be a flirt with a Holocaust crime. ≈


  1. In the novel, Michael sends his own manuscripts to Hanna as well. In prison, Hanna functions as his muse.
  2. This cemetery belongs to a church Michael and Hanna once visited on a bicycle trip. Hanna was overwhelmed by the music (sung by a chorus of children) and perhaps by memories of the burning church on the Todesmarsch. A spectator in the audience may interpret her passionate crying in the latter as an allusion to the mass murder, if he or she has previously read the novel or seen the film.
  3. Perhaps Schlink is overdoing it here: According to an agreement reached by Michael and the female Holocaust survivor, Hanna’s money is to be dedicated to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy. The threat of an illiterate state of mind seems to be generalized here, perhaps strengthening a metaphorical dimension of “illiteracy”. Does Hanna’s endowment intimate that any “illiterate person”, irrespective of class, ethnicity, gender or religion, can be seduced by totalitarian temptations?
  4. Hanna’s decision to leave Siemens in 1943 in order to join the SS and become a prison-camp guard was also caused by a promotion. It is interesting that Siemens, although “morally better” than the SS, was producing weapons used during World War II and used forced labor (Zwangsarbeiter). In the novel, there are some references to the deforming effects of institutions, which allows the individual to plead “doing one’s duty”, i.e. the “subaltern agency” pattern. The narrator stresses that even the judge is a public official, formed by an institution, and is constructing his own patterns of fulfilling duty as best he can.
  5. Amazingly, another kind of guilt seems to be overlooked – Hanna is not ashamed of having slept with a schoolboy. In the film, the reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover gives Hanna’s blundering seduction of minors an almost humorous twist: Hanna criticizes D.H. Lawrence’s novel loudly as indecent but then, curiously, asks Michael to go on reading!
  6. On the balance between entertainment and education see Micha Ostermann, Aporien des ErinnernsBernhard Schlinks Roman Der Vorleser, Bochum 2004, pp. 98, 108.
  7. I think an important parallel can be drawn to the sentimental ending of the film Das Leben der Anderen (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) and the exceptional case of the one good guy among all the evil STASI perpetrators.
  • by Antje Wischmann

    Currently visiting professor in Scandinavian studies at the University of Tübingen, lecturer at the Department for Northern European Studies at the Humboldt University Berlin.

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