The Reader is in some ways a strange film. Its plot is never really capable of bearing the weight that its setting suggests it should. It begins in Germany in the mid-1950s. Michael, a bookish, sulky boy in his mid-teens returns to thank Hanna, the woman who helped him home when the illness that has kept him confined to bed for months began. After a little awkwardness, they begin an affair. Hanna is a tram conductor, ordinarily pretty, though a little abrupt and apparently friendless. Although it is clear that something has happened to leave her seducing a boy at best half her age, and particularly initially so bluntly, we barely see her through except with him, in a position of gentle power, so nothing more than a quite conventional unhappiness is suggested. Seemingly idly, she asks him to read her, and we are given a series of images of them, typically naked, of him reading various classics of Western literature to her; Lady Chatterley's Lover in the bath, her telling him it's filthy and then to go on, and so on. After being told she is being promoted from conductor to work in the office, she leaves suddenly without telling him. So far, in form, a certain kind of coming of age story; an awkward boy - it has to be a boy - is introduced, mostly kindly, to sex by a woman whose own vulnerabilities give her a certain kind of innocence, mean that any exploitation seems quite benign; he will go into the world with a range of experience that will help him find his way in it, and the inevitable heartbreak is quickly forgotten at that age.
We then skip to find Michael at university in the 60s, where he is a law student and taking a class where the professor takes his students to see the trial of Nazi war criminals. Hanna is one of the defendants. At the end of the war, when the inmates of the camps were fleeing the Russian advance, she was guarding 300 women and children who burnt to death locked into a church that was hit in a bombing raid. Her co-defendants claim she was in charge, and she is sentenced to life imprisonment while they are given much shorter sentences. The case against them all turns on a report they say she wrote. As has been hinted at throughout the film, though, she is illiterate, as it seems they know. He finally sees why she wanted to be read to so much when she contests the claim she wrote the report only to concede as soon as a handwriting sample is asked for. Unable to follow through his plan to persuade her to help herself, he allows her to be shamed and bullied into becoming a scapegoat for her manipulative, more confident erstwhile colleagues. After the collapse of his marriage a further decade later, he begins to send her tapes of the books he read to her when they were lovers, which she then uses to learn to read. In the 80s, when she is to be released, he is her only contact and so is asked to help her adjust to life outside. They meet once, barely able to speak to each other, and she hangs herself on the day she was supposed to leave the prison. He is tasked with giving her savings to a survivor of the death march who had testified against her to decide what to do with. The survivor will not accept them herself, and so agrees with his suggestion of giving them to a charity for the illiterate.
This is not the way coming of age stories continue. Something that seemed quite ordinary, that could be fitted into the rest of a life, looms blackly over all of it. A simple shared pleasure, a happy intimacy, ends up blighting an entire existence. Being illiterate is no excuse at all for standing by while 300 people to burn to death - and when pressed during the trial, Hanna is or at least appears morally illiterate about their deaths, unable to do more than repeat that she was guarding them, had to prevent them escaping - yet she cannot have done what he has allowed her to be punished for; is his shock and shame at what he did with her, who worked at the murder of millions, the pleasures he took, was able to take because of exactly the vulnerabilities others exploited, enough of an excuse? That these little moments, an easy summer in and out of her small, down at the heel apartment, have to bear this weight is too much. The plot cannot require having once spent a few months reading to someone before sleeping with them to carry questions about German war guilt, or the next generation's attitude to what their parents and their parents' friends, their teachers and professors, the whole generation who lived through the war, who brought them up, who ruled over them, had done. It's telling that the question of what anyone else did in the war is never raised; not his parents, not his professor, no-one. If the film wanted to talk about the shadow Nazism cast, and how it was different from the one it ought to have, their brief relationship has to do it all, and it can't, not without picturing their intimacy quite differently. So it becomes a personal tragedy, and the way she was doomed and with her, him; a co-author of her fate, someone who once enjoyed it, even though he did not know that was what he was doing till well after the fact. That personal tragedy is of the right kind of scope for their intimacies.
This isn't to say it's not a good film; it is. Kate Winslet is excellent, wary in just the right way, and Ralph Fiennes is as dignifiedly destroyed by his grief as you'd expect. It is not a film about Nazism though, despite the fact that its drama centrally turns around the trial of one of its protagonists for Nazi war crimes.A film about Nazism would not make everything turn on a boy reading to his older lover. Auschwitz cannot be reimagined that way. It's too humane. Compared to The White Ribbon, which details, in sharp, incredibly beautiful, very carefully composed monochrome, the petty, spiralling brutalities of a Prussian farming village at the beginning of the last century, it has no idea how to draw its canvas wide or nastily enough to take in the 300 who burnt to death, let alone the millions who died in the camps and the ghettos, and forests and quarries outside Eastern European towns and cities. It sits uncomfortably somewhere between that and Diana Athill's wonderful Instead of a Letter, another memoir, though perhaps a more clear-eyed one, of a young love's betrayal and its effects, particularly those related to the betrayed's complicity in their betrayal. Even Athill, for that matter, manages to say rather a lot about the position of her class and her gender as she grew up, though that lists a set of more quotidian evils. You do not expect to come away from a film about a concentration camp guard thinking of how their relationship reminds you of the sadness of all the things you once shared with lovers, and only them, each and individually, but that is the effect The Reader seems incapable of avoiding aiming for and oddly, achieving.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Monday, May 28, 2012
In today's Guardian, there's an approving biog of Claire Perry, Tory MP for Devizes. Quoting Demos, it describes her as "one of 2010's intake of women "helping to reshape the Conservative party" with a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism". Max Wind-Cowie, head of Demos' oxymoronic Progressive Conservatism project, tells us she has "little time for ideologues either of the right or left" and "just wants to get things done". All this is I suppose just the meaninglessness standard for puff pieces where not straightforwardly incoherent - neither fiscal conservatism nor social liberalism are apparently ideologies, or at least ones of the right or left. What I particularly noticed was she was described as "a middle-aged working mother with a middle income, living in middle England" in the paragraph after it is revealed that she has two children, one nine and one fifteen, both at boarding school. Average boarding school fees a term for a nine year old are apparently £5,892 and £7,968 for a fifteen year old (figures from here). That's nearly fifty thousand pounds a year. Only 5% of British households have a net income - net income, note, not disposal income: this is the income you have to cover your rent or mortgage from, buy food with, pay utilities bills, everything - over £50,000 (here). Let's say, then, that they've another £25,000 on top of that. That puts them in the top 1% of the British income distribution.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Jeremy Waldron recently gave his inaugural lecture as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, entitled 'Political Political Theory' (pdf). His concern there was to argue that political theorists have paid too little attention to "political processes and institutions", a concern which I'm basically sympathetic to. What's disappointing, although not puzzling given Waldron's background in the law, is that he thinks of political processes and institutions are basically the processes and institutions that constitutional lawyers are interested in. His examples are all of the arrangement of legislative institutions, or of the relationship between different branches of government. Political economy and its insights or moral psychology and its, for instance, are absent from political theory. To put it cruelly, Waldron, despite having spent much of his career rightly disparaging Ronald Dworkin's insistence that the decisions of nine elderly government appointees are more democratic than those given by the people's will through elections, apparently shares Dworkin's insistence that political theorists should spend their time talking to US Supreme Court Justices, regardless of whether the country they're working in has any.