Feb 2, 2009

Inducing a cosmic eeew

So I folded and saw The Reader last night. It exceeded even my expectations of how awful it might be. Here goes: a healthy young man named Michael, friendly and engaging, with a big broad smile that suggests a trusting, loving nature, enjoys his first sexual romance with an older woman. She is beautiful, distant, a little cruel, but she teaches him the ways of female flesh. Their affair lasts for a summer, at the end of which she leaves town and Michael returns to the bosom of his family. He becomes a law student, much liked, pursued by beautiful girls his own age. Then one day he attends a war crimes trial and sees his old flame in the dock for war crimes committed while a member of Hitler's SS.

You might think his reaction to this would be one of initial shock followed by rueful reflection on the poor judgment of horny sixteen-year-old-boys. But no, what happens is this: He grows up into Ralph Fiennes. A cloud follows him wherever he goes. He marries only to see the marriage falter. He has a daughter but proves a distant father. 40 years later he is still traumatised, angry, torn apart by self loathing, seeking closure, demanding catharsis, trying and failing to find some way to put his history with this woman behind him. To which any reasonable cinema goer might be forgiven for asking: what gives?

What gives is that Bernard Schlink, the book's original author wanted to provide a probing, exhaustive disinterral of post-war German guilt. In which case, can I make a suggestion? Don't pick as your hero someone who merely shagged a war criminal, Bernard. Pick a war criminal, their butler or maid. Shagging a war criminal is unlikely to provide you with probing, exhaustive disinterral of anything much except one's poor choice of shagging partners when you are a horny sixteen year old boy. Horny sixteens year old boys will shag anything. The lesson to be drawn from such a tale are, one would have thought, negligable. 

How guilty can he a sixteen year old kid be made to feel exactly for sleeping with an attractive war criminal? I would imagine the most he would feel is a kind of momentary fate-infused grodiness — a sort of sexual-cosmic eew. But to have it blight your entire life, as if guilt were some kind of contagion, passed on through the most fleeting of contacts? What a complete crock. This story was concocted by someone who has spent almost no time observing those frail, feckless creatures we call human beings and all his time having ideas about them.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know...though by no means a great movie or worthy of any Oscar nominations, I think there were some interesting elements: the how-could-I-have-been-so-wrong-about-someone aspect; her unflinching pride that made her take all the blame herself; the taking-orders-blindly-because-it's-your-job mentality; his conflict between his affection and her reality; and the simple fact of living with a secret your whole life and the need to release it to move on. All somewhat interesting, I thought. I thought it was less about the holocaust and more a study on human behavior, maybe?