Feb 24, 2009
Kate Winslet's Academy Award for Best Actress in The Reader surely disappointed and
outraged Ron Rosenbaum. Amid the torrent of nonsense glutting U.S. media since the movie award
nominations were announced, Rosenbaum's objections to The Reader were far more substantive and
In his Slate column, Rosenbaum attacked the "essential
metaphorical thrust" of the film, which he said aimed "to exculpate Nazi-era
Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." Rosenbaum decried the
notion of honoring "a film that asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass
murderer and intimates that 'ordinary Germans' were ignorant of the
extermination until after the war..."
Rosenbaum indicted "the Kate Winslet character's
'illiteracy': She's a stand-in for the German people and their supposed
inability to 'read' the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by
their fellow citizens. To which one
can only say: What a crock!"
In fact it is
a crock, a willful misreading of The
Reader to lump it in with a genre of films which exploit the Holocaust
(e.g., Life is Beautiful, winner of
several Academy Awards). Bernard Schlink, author of the novel
on which the film of The Reader is
based, told an interviewer in December: "It's definitely not a movie about the
Holocaust. It's about a generation
trying to come to terms with what they had to learn about their parents'
But Rosenbaum's Shoah sensitivities are Manichean. He concedes nothing to the moral and
emotional complexities within or between the characters, especially in the
film's central relationship between Michael and
Michael's passionate affair with the much-older Hanna at
first uplifts his adolescence. But
when, as a law student, he witnesses her murder trial, along with other former
Nazi concentration camp guards, he is devastated. Michael believes that Hanna has admitted
to writing a report about the death of 300 Jewish prisoners, trapped in a
burning church, in order to avoid revealing her
Michael tells his law professor (Bruno Ganz) that he has
knowledge relevant to the trial, perhaps in the defendant's favor. The older professor urges Michael to
speak up: You don't want to be like us and do nothing do you? Here Ganz is referring to his own silent
wartime generation. But Michael
cannot bring himself to visit Hanna during her trial, even though he knows her
illiteracy has probably condemned her to a far greater penalty than her equally
- or perhaps surpassingly - guilty comrades.
The other guards have no moral sense. But they are rewarded for their lies and
stonewalling, receiving much lighter sentences than Hanna, who simply blurts out
the truth, takes the rap and ends up sentenced to life in prison. She admits to having no moral sense, and
therefore must be the more strongly condemned. Does this really create undue sympathy
for Hanna, as Rosenbaum suggests?
At the end of the film, an escaped victim (Lena Olin) explicitly asks the
adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) if he thinks Hanna's illiteracy mitigates her
guilt. And he says no.
As one of the law students in the film declares, the
question is not who knew about the extermination of the Jews. There were hundreds of camps all over
Everybody knew. "My parents,
my teachers, everyone." The
question is, what did they do about it?
The answer is: Nothing. As
the student says to the bemused Ganz: "The only question is why you didn't all
just kill yourselves?"
Rosenbaum incorrectly accuses The Reader of claiming that most Germans
were ignorant of the The Holocaust.
The film's underlying assumption is far more damning: everybody knew, but
nobody acted on that knowledge. Of
course, as Samantha Power recounts in her Pulitzer-Prize winning study of
genocide, A Problem From Hell, the
States was also well aware of Hitler's
extermination of European Jewry before and during World War Two and also chose
to do nothing.
Power's book is a shocking indictment of American
neutrality in the face of evil, during the Holocaust and other systematic
programs of genocide all around the world - in Turkey, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and elsewhere - over the past
hundred years. "The key question"
writes Power, after presenting hundreds of pages of documented evidence, "... is:
Why does the United
States stand so idly by? The most common response is, 'We didn't
know.' This is not true."
"Because the savagery of genocide so defies our everyday experience, many
of us failed to wrap our minds around it," Power's says. "Bystanders were thus able to retreat to
the 'twilight between knowing and not knowing.'" It was easier not to probe for certainty
because uncertainty did not demand action.
Power concludes that America failed to act against
genocide not because the country lacked knowledge or influence but because it
did not have the will to act.
U.S. officials "were not prepared to
invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed
to stop it."
Now the United
States faces a new moral crisis, the subversion
of our own legal and moral values by high officials of our own government. We are, in this moment. as awash in
complicity and willful denial as the principled middle-class denizens of the
Third Reich. We are the Good
Germans of the new millennium in Bush America because we knew about the illegal
kidnappings and tortures, the self-serving legalisms that subverted the
and papered over Constitutional lapses, the lies that led us into conquest and
occupation. Starting well before
the invasion of Iraq - which millions around the
globe protested in unprecedented numbers before it occurred - we knew the
"weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam's connections to al-Qaeda were bullshit
excuses. But many millions of us
tried to pretend that we really weren't
In his Sunday column entitled: "What We Don't Know Will Hurt Us," Frank
Rich remarked upon this "American reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for,
bad news. We are plugged into more
information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago... Yet we
are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable." Or as Bob Dylan put it, in the context
of race relations a generation ago, "How many times must a man turn his head and
pretend that he just doesn't see?"
We know, deep inside us we know, as the Germans who kept their heads down
and tried to lead 'normal' lives as genocide exploded all around them, in their
name, by their own government, knew, that our government has committed terrible
atrocities at home and abroad. If
we do nothing to bring these crimes to light and their perpetrators to justice,
then we are as guilty and worthy of moral condemnation as the war generation of
silent Germans whom Ron Rosenbaum rightly
For Bernard Schlink, this knowledge, that his parents' generation denied,
"makes me aware how thin the ice is on which we live." Schlink believed that German culture and
institutions like courts, universities, churches, unions and political parties
"all seemed so solid." And yet it all broke down, "relatively easily." In America
too. Somehow we allowed our
government to invade a country that had committed no aggression toward the
We allowed our government to declare an emergency in order to violate
human rights of many thousands of individuals, to commit torture, to incarcerate
people for years without trial or hearings of any kind. And today we continue the violence in
Iraq and Pakistan. We continue to jail and abuse
individuals without charges. And we
all know it's wrong. And it's time
to deal with it before our "land of the free" is irreparably compromised.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has laid out The Case for a Truth Commission (Time, Feb 20). As Leahy says: "For much of this decade,
we have read about and witnessed such abuses as the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the
disclosure of torture memos and the revelations about the warrantless
surveillance of Americans. We need
to get to the bottom of what happened--and why--to make sure it never happens
again... to find the truth....
"But to repair the damage of the past eight years and
restore America's reputation and standing in the world, we should not simply
turn the page without being able first to read it.... We need to get to the bottom
of what went wrong after a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law
and values. The American people have a right to know what their government has
done in their names."
It's not just our right. It's a fundamental need. German society is still - and may always
be - in recovery, not just from the atrocities committed in its name, by its
leaders, but from the silent acquiescence of the millions who lacked the will to
speak up against what they knew was wrong.
To sweep the crimes and excesses of the Bush-Cheney years under the rug
would destroy the American soul.
The world needs the American sense of justice now more than ever. But we forfeit our moral authority if we
do not take responsibility for the crimes of the Bush-Cheney years. Karl Rove continues to flaunt
congressional subpoenas to testify.
He figures he can stonewall indefinitely, that there will be no day of
reckoning for lawless U.S. officials. We must do everything in our power to
prove him wrong.
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