The Reader (2008): A Mirror To The Viewer
“People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness for her? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.” The above dialogue appears at the ending of Stephen Daldry’s heart-rending holocaust masterpiece The Reader (2008) which is a perfectly profound description of the art.
Art indeed is catharsis! A catharsis which we need more than ever before in today’s times when all the horrendous and ghastly things are happening all around the globe. Art is a much-needed medication that helps to soothe our minds and hearts which have been constantly crushed by all the adversities and viciousness which life inflicts upon each of us. And sometimes art can disturb as well as perturb us because it makes us see things we don’t want to see, think about things we don’t want to think and feel things we don’t want to feel! And out of all the art forms, cinema is the most accessible and voguish.
The Reader (2008) depicts in its first half, a tender and amorous romance between an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), and a 16-year-old boy, Michael Berg (David Kross). But it ends soon when Hanna decides to leave David without any explanation. In the second half, David grows and becomes a law school student who as a part of his seminar classes goes to the court to observe a trial which involves several women accused of letting 300 Jewish women die in a concentration camp during the Nazi-Era where they were SS guards, and Hanna is one of them.
The Holocaust is the most tragic and remorseless incident in the history of mankind, in which millions of Jews were murdered because of who they were. But The Reader (2008) is more than just a movie about the holocaust, the German guilt or an unsavory love story. It’s about what happens when a person refuses to do good or the right thing. Hanna could have saved those women but her explanation to the judge was that she was just doing her job! Michael knew about Hanna’s innocence and his testimony would have proved her innocent in the court of law but he was ashamed of disclosing his relationship with an older woman (or ashamed of associating with a Nazi War Criminal who is if not fully but partially guilty in such a heinous crime) as Hanna was ashamed of her illiteracy!
But we too, are as guilty as Hanna and Michael. What are we doing to stop the evils which are around us? We too, like Hanna and Michael might justify ourselves by saying, “What can an ordinary person like me do about such a situation?” The answer lies in the quote of Napoleon Bonaparte – “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of the good people”.
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But that’s what makes cinema or any other art form powerful that we can relate with its characters and more importantly empathize with them because even we are also as flawed as they are. Drama generally thrives because of its flawed characters. So when The Reader (2008) ends, we as a viewer are posed with a very disconcerting but monumental question that what we would have done if we were in Hanna or Michael’s shoes? The answer to that question will help us unveil where we stand as a human in this world!