Sunday, February 22, 2009

And if the Nazi cougar wins . . .

It's pretty feasible that Kate Winslet will be toting an Oscar statue to the Vanity Fair afterparty tonight (which she fully deserves). This most likely will result in even more Americans' shock and disapproval of The Reader portraying a hot sexual relationship between a 36 year-old woman and a fifteen year-old high school student in 1958 Germany. One critic even posed this issue to Winslet, which resulted in one pissed-off Oscar nominee. She responded:
I'm so sorry, "statutory rape"? I've got to tell you, I'm so offended by that. I genuinely am. To me, that is absolutely not this story at all. That boy knows exactly what he's doing. For a start, Hanna Schmitz thinks that he's seventeen, not fifteen, you know? She's not doing anything wrong. They enter that relationship on absolutely equal footing. Statutory rape – really please, don't use that phrase. I do genuinely find it offensive actually. This is a beautiful and very genuine love story and that is always how I saw it.
For the record, the age of consent in Germany at that time was (and still is) fourteen. But the scandalously-younger-man-with-cougar aspect of the film is the least of its worries.

The Reader
has gotten flack from people claiming it's a Holocaust apology, and, incredibly, a Holocaust denial.

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner (whom I've had the honor of meeting as a staff photographer for my university newspaper), has praised The Reader as “a film that deals powerfully with Germany’s reconciliation with its past.” He said that “it is not about the Holocaust; it is about what Germany did to itself and its future generations.” He called it “a faithful adaptation of an important book, that is still relevant today as genocide continues to be practiced around the world.

Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's National Director, agrees with Mr. Wiesel. "As we move further away from the Holocaust we must continue to tell the story of the Shoah in ways that will reach and touch new generations."

If you haven't seen the film, spoilers follow.

Although I haven't yet read the novel, the film version makes it pretty clear during the courtroom scene that Winslet's character Hanna Schmitz is a non-questioning, non-thinking, non-pondering sheep. She is no enlightened liberal, just a simple, uneducated working class loner. When asked by the judge why she accepted her duties as an SS guard, she asks him, "What would you have done?" She's not being a wiseass, she is genuinely baffled by his question. It never occurred to her to defy orders from headquarters. When asked why she let three hundred people burn to death, she flips out and screams about how she couldn't afford to lose control over her prisoners, banging her hand on the desk in anger. She just doesn't get it, and it will be many more years before she finally does.

Another "hit you over the head" moment in the film occurs when Michael's law-school classmate argues that all Germans, like Hanna, should have known better. "Everyone knew. The question is, how could you let this happen? Why did you not kill yourself when you found out?"

Bernhard Schlink, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, met with Charlie Rose in December. They had a poignant, frank discussion you can watch online here about his coming to terms with learning that people close to him had done some horrible things during the Holocaust, and how it affected his relationships. He also explains the situation in terms of generations in an interview with NPR:
[The Reader] is about "the problem of what does it mean to us [and] how do we cope with the fact that someone we love, admire [and] respect turns out to have committed an awful crime?"

Speaking as a member of Germany's "second generation" — the generation that came after World War II — Schlink explains: "It's an unsolvable problem — the second generation can't just expel the parent generation from its love and solidarity."

And yet, he says, not breaking from the guilty often means that the second generation becomes entangled in that guilt. For Schlink, the conflict came to light when he learned that one of his favorite teachers had denounced people to the Gestapo during World War II.

Schlink hopes that his fiction will help the generations to come:

"The second generation finally wasn't and isn't silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt," he says. "We all tried ... to make that past speak out for our [generation] and — even more so — the next generations."

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