Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Reader

I have not read the book upon which The Reader is based, the second of two outstanding films about individual and collective responsibility of the murder of over six million men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish race, by the people of Germany during World War II. The first film, The Boy with Stripped Pyjamas is a much simpler and black and white story in which the son of a concentration extermination camp befriends a Jewish boy inmate and goes into the camp to help the boy search for his father, having secretly seen a propaganda film, shown in his home by his father, to other officers at the camp and in the military hierarchy, presenting the camp as a healthy work centre with good food and recreational opportunities. While his father and grandfather are fully supportive of Hitler and the extermination policy, his wife is at the point of leaving him and taking the children away, while his grandmother refused to have contact after finding out what he was doing, One feels sympathy for plight of both boys, those in the camp and the two German women, but also despair because you know even if the film is seen by every child and every mother on the planet it will have no effect on what human beings do to each other in the future, or continue to do as they are doing now.

The Reader is three films in one. First it is story of the impact on the life of one fifteen year old boy, seduced by a thirty six year old single woman living in a small dingy flat who he first encounters at the onset of Scarlet Fever. There are a succession of graphic sex scenes between the boy, played convincingly by an eighteen year old actor, and Kate Winslet, who is likely to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance. The scenes have a point to them in showing the effect of the passion on the boy and the seducer, but they would have had greater validity had the sex been less good and more messy., Only at the end of the film, is there reference that irrespective of what is German law or the law any particular country, for a seduction of a school age male by a mature female to be just as damaging as the seduction by an adult male of a male child, or of a school girl by a physically adult male or female. There are also moral considerations. The school child is the victim however much they consent to what happens and they are usually adversely affected throughout the rest of their lives, whether the law intervenes or not, and often the damage is reinforced and sometimes made significantly worse when the law intervenes as when it does not. The summertime seduction takes place in the mid 1950’s
The second film within a film is about Crime and Punishment and the extent to which an individual may commit a serious crime and yet not be fully responsible for what they have done and the extent to which this should or should not be taken into account when they are judged by law and by society in general. The character played by Kate Winslet is presented is an illiterate, emotionally, spiritually and mentally retarded moral defective. As a former professional her performance is clinically impressive.

The focus of the film is her illiteracy. As a concentration work camp guard, when only a teenager or in her early twenties, it is said at her trial in the mid 1960’s when the school boy has become a law student studying the holocaust from the viewpoint of legal responsibility in the contest of moral and collective responsibility, that she took an interest in the younger girls at the camp and had them read out loud to her. Such a personality is likely to feel more able to communicate and relate to those who are younger, and as or more inadequate and vulnerable than themselves. They are unlikely to establish adult relationships with adults.

As the seducer of the a schoolboy boy over the summer, she has him read to her before agreeing to sexual activity. For her it is being read to that it important and the sex is the price she has to pay for this.

As a convicted life prisoner who is to be released after twenty years, she has taught herself to read after being sent a tape recorder and audio tapes by the boy, now a lawyer. played by Ralph Fiennes who continues to read to her. He is the only contact she has with anyone outside of the prison. In the film, and it would be interesting to see if this is also so in the book, there is information given to how she become as she is. Under British law, before sentencing after a conviction, the Judge is required to have available comprehensive background reports in addition to any information provided by the defence and the prosecution.

The boy, when he becomes a law student attends the trial without knowing she is a defendant and at one point tries to discuss with his tutor whether he should raise his knowledge of her which might affect her sentence. if not her conviction, but he fails to do so, or to take up a visit because he cannot admit to anyone the nature of their previous relationship. He denies knowledge when asked by other seminar students and the tutor..
The accusation is often levelled at the victims of sexual abuse and other violence in their childhood, why it is often years after the event before they tell anyone what happened to them. I know from personal and professional experience just how difficult it is to talk about such incidents and situations when one is the victim and sadly the experience of those who subsequently do so is such as to suggest that in general disclosure is best in privately in a confidential professional setting with some one of proven integrity.

The film indicates rather than makes explicit that the character, played by Kate Winslet, is a moral defective, a psychopath who is able to divorce herself from the impact of what she does upon others.

There are two charges levelled against her and five other former female guards. The first is that each month, it may have been more frequently, they selected the women who were to be transferred from the work camp to the extermination camp. They each had to select ten. Kate is the only one of the defendants to admit that this is what happened, something which the others deny, although there is a prosecution witness able to identity those on trial as guards and as those who made the selection. When asked by the chairperson of the judges why she makes the selection she asks him back what else was she to do?. She goes on to explain that it was not a matter of being ordered or under threat of what would happen if she did not produce her quota of those to be transferred, but it was in view a straight forward matter of common sense and simple arithmetic. Sixty new women were being admitted to the camp so sixty existing women had to leave. What happened to them after they left was irrelevant.

This is the logic used by British, USA and other governments at the present time to defend their failure to intervene when human being starve to death in various parts of the rest of the world, when Governments or people within other countries embark on the slaughter of others. I pay my national and local taxes diligently. I do this not because it is law, or there are adverse consequences for me if I do not, but because it is what I am asked to do. I am in effect doing my job at being a good citizen. I do not decide how that money is subsequently spent. I am not asked if I would like the proportion spent on creating weapons of mass destruction to be diverted to stop human being starving or dying of preventable illnesses
I am not a moral defective in the sense that I do care a great deal about what happens to the taxes I pay and what does not. I once went to prison for six months to make the point that I wished to disassociate myself my government, any government, which manufactured, possessed and is willing to use weapons of mass destruction on non-combatants

However in terms of moral responsibility and legal responsibility I have to admit that it is questionable if the six accused women in this film are any more culpable for the fact that the women they selected were executed by others on orders from Hitler and the German High command as I am, or you are, because you do not withhold part of your taxes unless the government ensures they are spent on some good cause of your determination than on matters of state which you regarded as morally reprehensible.

This is the third film within a film and is what I believe the film is primarily about. The reason given in the film why the Kate Winslet character is sentenced to life imprisonment and the other five women to under five years, is not directly to do with the selection process. This is a red herring except that it helps to prepare for the more important charge. At one point the six guards were ordered to take some 300 women on a march to a new destination and at an overnight stop they are locked into a church which catches fire and burns down as a result of bombing. All but one of the women die and the doors remain locked by the guards despite the extent of the fire and their screams. At the trial it emerges that Kate was in charge of the march party and that she wrote the official report on what happened. She attempts to explain the decision not to unlock the doors by emphasising that she had been placed in charge with the responsibility of guarding the women and if she had opened the doors in the middle of the night and with all the bombing around how could she have continued to guard them? Again for her it is not a question of what happened to the women through her inaction but what was likely to have happened if she had acted.

The character is therefore not just a model citizen for the Third Reich, but a model citizen of the UK, the USA and other western style democracies today. She does what she is paid to do, no more and no less, without question or thought for the implications of what she is doing, whether it is morally right or wrong, I have never been a fan of detailed job descriptions. They are loved by managements because they can be used to sack people who have failed to carry out their job description, requirements in some way, usually after being warned, unless the breach is a serious one as defined in the contract of employment. They are also loved by trade unions and lawyers as a means of defending employees if they do what is required of them and consequences adversely affect others. This si why Kate’s truth at the court shocks and disturbs the judicial system. They are used to defendant lying and their lawyers defending on the matter of fact and law. In general the system cannot cope with moral or political questions or issues which undermine the status quo, especially which attack he system itself.

Just think of all those Wall Street and City of London Hedge Fund traders whose lust for personal wealth has resulted in what is likely to be millions of British and USA workers losing their jobs, and some their Homes. What they were doing was encouraged by their governments, and democratically approved by the rest of us and anyone who stood out and criticised was sidelined and sometimes punished. Some may lose their jobs simply because there is less work, but the majority will continue as before, perhaps taking greater care, drawing their pay and their bonuses although for some the cash bonus is being withheld, but not the shares and the freebies.

A more direct and simpler example are those working in cigarette manufacturing, marketing, distribution and selling. They are all part of a conspiracy to commit mass murder. They know what they are doing and they continue to do it. The government and the civil servants who collect the taxes from the cigarette manufacturers and from all those who work in the tobacco industry are also part of the conspiracy because they know that mass murder is being committed and who is committing the murder.

The reason why our prisons are bulging with drug addicts and drug sellers, while those who manufacture and sell tobacco remain free is not a moral issue, but a political and a legal one. It is not legal to manufacture, distribute and sell certain kinds of drugs, except under strict licence regardless of the fact that such drugs do not in general directly kill anyone. It is not illegal to manufacture, market, and distribute tobacco or to sell tobacco products although there are some rules now about this. It is a political decision, mainly based on taxation and employment issues why the production, distribution and selling of tobacco has not been made illegal in a situation where we know it kills and costs the National Health services billions in treatment and care. There was a problem about how to deal with those already addicted but we now have knowledge and the ability to treat such individuals. We would rather kill these people than spend the money to treat them. We collectively have in effect locked the church door on existing smokers and go about our daily lives while they die in terror. We rely on the occasional scapegoat to appease our conscience,

One of the high moments in The Reader is when one of the seminar law students slams the show trial for the reasons that I have now argued in relation to tobacco. He points out the number of guards at the concentration camp and the number actually charged, convicted and that the charged and convicted has been miniscule. He points out that there were hundreds of camps and thousands of workers plus their families who knew of what was happening and that many approved of what was happening and he wants to know how those of that generation can face the world or stand in judgement over others. It is a good question, especially as in the film, the seminar tutor also points out that as law students they are concerned with the law and nothing but the law. They are not concerned with moral questions or political ones.

It is good that present day generations learn what happened historically in Germany and their Empire in the 1930’s and 1940’s and that the issues of individual and collective responsibility are discussed in the context of that time. However we should ensure that such questions are not raised just in relation to the German people of sixty years ago, but the Russians, the Chinese, and the British, the Italians and the French and their Empires especially in central and northern Africa. Similarly present generation should lean the facts of how 19th and 20th century Americans treated the native Americans, similarly the Australians and the New Zealanders to their indigenous people, and Whites towards the Blacks in South Africa and in the USA. The Muslims towards their women and so on and on through to Israel and Hamas in Gaza at this very moment.

The Reader has one of the most perfect endings in cinematic history and also one of the more emotional. The former camp guard faces the truth of her relationship with the former school boy and the man he has become, and the decision she takes appears governed by the reality of her present situation but not by any realization of her personal crimes, the guilt or from remorse. She continues to be governed by her present and not her past.

The boy now an established lawyer visits the daughter of the only person to survive the slaughter in the church and what they say and what they express about their feelings is as close to the truth as human beings are ever able to communicate directly with each other.

Finally the boy who has became a father unable to communicate with his daughter takes her on a visit in which he begins the process of healing himself and his relationship with her. There is personal hope, redemption and salvation but continuing collective despair.

No comments:

Post a Comment