I’ve been engaged in a project to spend my spare time watching every film that’s ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. And thus I came to 2008′s “The Reader,” one of the most polite Holocaust films I’ve ever seen. If you take a look at this cover image of the DVD, you can pretty much get a feeling for the film. Yeah, it’s really that sparce, indirect, and almost embarrassingly reserved. And that’s the problem — not so much for the film itself, but for what it means in the context of Holocaust and post-Holocaust literature and film, and what that “genre,” if it is one, means.
To paraphrase, some reviewers have asked what might be gained by having yet another post-Holocaust story that asks us to sympathize with a concentration camp guard. Don’t the awful events of the Holocaust grow more remote with each polite, stylish retelling? Don’t such stories merely give modern audiences, European and otherwise, yet another opportunity to feel good about themselves at the expense of any true historical understanding or a meaningful context to the events of the Holocaust? After a certain point, isn’t this just, y’know, kinda just tragedy tourism? Doesn’t its use as entertainment cheapen the human reality — and, perhaps more importantly, diminish the scale?
To these criticisms, I must say…”Well, yeah, probably.”
Sometimes it scares me to think about what little is actually gained by modern, non-culpable viewers and readers who experience artwork about the Holocaust. I did not have a damn thing to do with the Holocaust (not having been born yet). Nor did anyone in my family, being on the other side of history (that is, my many grandparents and great-uncles were serving in the U.S. military or working on the home front at the time). Nonetheless, genocides of all sort, and the Holocaust in particular, compel me intensely. Yeah, maybe it’s tragedy tourism. But it is what it is.
Sadly, “The Reader” does not compel me the way that more visceral and first-person Holocaust or post-Holocaust stories have. Even “The Night Porter,” for example, at least confronts its audience with a fetishistic and morbid obsession with death, played out with a compellingly and almost irresistibly repulsive eroticism that bears eerie comparison to the coming-of-age eroticism in “The Reader.” “The Night Porter” mines the Holocaust for its most compelling fetishistic roots…with questionable morals, at least, but isn’t that the point? In “The Reader,” on the other hand, the erotic elements amount to a fetishistic treatment of innocence, wrapped in a kind of barely-pushing-the-envelope eroticism that is really a big steaming helping of polite sensuality made palatable by a British fetishization of German emotional distance. Why is it that two sketchily similar concentration camp stories in film, forty years apart, reflect such concrete but different sexual obsessions — but sexual obsessions nonetheless?
Fuck if I know. All I can say is that I think little is gained from ever-more-stylish tellings of “redemption” in the wake of the Holocaust.
But, with all that said, “The Reader” remains a good film, if not a great one. I wouldn’t call it ballsy. And I certainly wouldn’t want to fight for its “importance” as part of Holocaust literature committed to film. In that context, unfortunately, I find it slightly embarrassing for its shallow treatment of the subject.
But as a tearjerker, “The Reader” works, so…I think I’ll cut it some slack for now and rate it a four out of five.