International Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated every January 27th. The day often re-ignites discussions over what should be done with the old Nazi death camps: should Auschwitz and Dachau be left to rot, reclaimed by nature, or actively maintained as a memorial to victims of the Holocaust? Survivors, whose opinions here should trump all, have weighed in both sides of the debate.
It’s not hard to imagine which side Hollywood comes down on, given its perpetual fascination with mining others’ tragedies for financial profit. Imaginary Witness (2004) ably explored Hollywood’s storied, controversial relationship with Nazism and WWII, but a virtual deluge of Holocaust films in the last few months has re-ignited the debate: what right do privileged bourgeoisie have to exploit unspeakable genocide for box office (and Academy Award) success?
Two recent movies, The Reader and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas , particularly bring this question to the forefront. Both are deeply indebted to past Holocaust films, especially 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, but with a disturbing twist: Nazis and Germans, not Third Reich victims, are played for sympathy.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is particularly egregious in this regard. David Thewlis plays a Nazi officer who is transferring to a new job as commandant of a concentration camp. In the process he must uproot his naive wife (Vera Farmiga) and children who all must, to some degree or another, come to grips with what their father does for a living. Expectedly, precocious eight-year-old Bruno is completely baffled by the “farm” next door to their staid house. He eventually comes to befriend a Jewish boy on the other side of the barbed-wire fence and together they learn sappy life lessons (meaning of true friendship, our shared humanity, etc ad nauseam).
The film builds to a perverse climax, replete with swelling orchestral score, that, while technically showing nothing gruesome, is so macabre in suggestion that it is nigh-unwatchable. It’s morally and aesthetically offensive because the scene is in service of a fraud. The truth is already unbearable enough, as 1998’s Last Days poignantly documented. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is rife with bizarre unrealities that expose the entire film as manipulative Oscar bait. We have, for example, a death camp with less security than our own campus, and an American actress playing a German mother who speaks English with a British accent; a mother, we should note, who is so daft that living next to crematoriums is not enough to clue her in to the fact that her husband’s job involves killing people.
While The Boy in the Striped Pajamas aims to be gutter-level schlock, and succeeds admirably, The Reader aims high(er), but fails dismally. It too features sympathetic Nazis speaking English, but it at least attempts nuance and subtlety. The film begins when Michael Berg, (David Kross, and then a forgettable Ralph Fiennes) a young student in post-war Germany, begins an improbable affair with an older woman named Hanna (in a great, though overrated, turn by Kate Winslet). The entire first act is this unfortunately-erotic drama between the two that alternates between lingering baths and scenes of Michael reading classic books to his illiterate lover.
This part soon gives way, thankfully, to Michael’s law-school years. The Reader’s second act is really the only interesting part. It morphs from love story to pseudo-courtroom drama as Michael discovers that his long-since-disappeared muse turns out to be a former S.S. officer responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jews. Commence lots of hand-wringing and soul-searching and cig-smoking.
Germans have a beautiful word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that describes the process of historical reckoning; specifically, how they, as a people, can come to terms with the horrors they either perpetrated or sanctioned under the Third Reich. This was particularly rough for the children who came of age just after the war: as one of Michael’s classmates exclaims, they must all come to grips with the fact that their own parents were complicit in the horrors of the Holocaust. Unlike most of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there is some attempted wrestling with moral ambiguity and questions of guilt and forgiveness. So as a glimpse of personal-historical reckoning, The Reader may be worth seeing for some.
The problem with The Reader, however, is that it simply attempts too much. The film doesn’t end after Hanna’s Nuremberg trial; we are, against everyone’s wishes, made to watch little Michael amble on well into middle age. So unlike the former movie, which is technically well-made but sentimental and sadistic, The Reader attempts to explore meaningful themes but is ultimately incompetent. Neither director Stephen Daldry nor the mostly-capable cast is quite up to task to tell such a wide-ranging story that can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The Reader even veers into a human-triumph story about an illiterate learning to read; surely a Holocaust film can say more than this.
Perhaps the problem is that Holocaust movies maybe aren’t supposed to say anything. The unspeakable, faith-shattering systematic extermination of six million Jews isn’t the kind of thing that ought to be casually raked over to boost some filmmaker’s resume. Near the end of The Reader Michael is talking to a Holocaust victim (survivor, of course, of his ex-lover) and she challenges his right to stake an emotional claim on the Holocaust: “Go to the theater if you want catharsis… Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.” Hollywood, take heed.