The Reader is the story of Michael who, as a fifteen year old in 1950s Germany, has an affair with a woman in her mid-thirties named Hanna (Kate Winslet). I might have used the conventional phrase, "embarks on a passionate affair", except the censors (who I recently praised for showing signs of liberalism, serves me right) had erased much of the passion. Later in his life, while a student of law, Michael attends a trial for former SS members and finds Hanna among the accused. She was, he discovers, a concentration camp guard during the second world war.
Kate Winslet's turn as Hanna has paid off in the form of her first Oscar, apart from a crate-load of other trophies. The usual route to such honours is through playing victims of Nazis: Adrian Brody and Roberto Benigni come to mind. The Reader features two excellent actors who've taken on Nazi characters in the past. Ralph Fiennes, the older Michael in The Reader, was riveting as the concentration camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. It remains his finest role, and was certainly more deserving of a supporting actor Oscar than the winner that year, Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. Bruno Ganz, cast as a professor in Michael's university, recently played Hitler in the German film, Downfall. It was a bit disconcerting to have these other Nazis floating in one's mind while watching the film.
Such characters are always controversial. A strong faction holds that Nazis should never be humanised, because any sympathy they derive from audiences detracts from the enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich. The opposing view draws on the idea of the banality of evil. In person, Hitler and Osama bin Laden might be courteous and affable; concentration camp commanders who consigned thousands to death could appear as boring as the stereotypical insurance salesman. Our vigilance against threats to freedom is heightened by understanding that people who perform acts of extreme cruelty are in many ways just ordinary folk.
It is impossible to make a serious film focussing on terrorists or Nazis without delving into their personalities in some fashion, and thus humanising them. At the same time, such films frequently recount or depict acts which demand the strongest condemnation: in the case of The Reader, we are told about an incident in which hundreds of Jewish women are allowed to burn to death in a church because its door is bolted from outside and the guards refuse to open it even after the building is bombed. Kate Winslet is among those guards culpable for the crime, but we cannot condemn her entirely because she has been humanised. How can the director work his way out of the conundrum? His solution utilises the other guards on trial, who are barely seen on screen and evoke no sympathy. They gang up on Winslet, thereby supplying the inhuman Nazis required by the film's plot.
The very first bit of lit crit I remember writing highlighted exactly this dichotomy between understanding and condemnation. The book we were studying was Dickens' Great Expectations, a novel with an exceptionally well-wrought plot. It begins with a boy named Pip helping out an escaped convict. A while later, Pip is invited to the home of Miss Havisham, a rich, eccentric woman, who is the guardian of a girl called Estella. Miss Havisham has been jilted as a young woman, and as revenge has brought Estella up to break men's hearts. Pip learns an anonymous donor has left him a large sum of money. He's convinced it is Miss Havisham, who wants him to become a gentleman worthy of Estella's hand. But Estella spurns him. Near the end of the novel, Pip discovers it is the convict who is his benefactor, and not Miss Havisham.
Dickens gives us three major characters who do cruel things. Estella mistreats Pip, but her guilt is transferred to Miss Havisham who has brought her up that way. Miss Havisham's treatment of Estella, in turn, is explained by her own trauma at the altar. And Magwitch the convict, too, has been betrayed by an associate who is now a sworn enemy.
To tie things up neatly, the man who swindled Miss Havisham is also the person who diddled Magwitch. His name is Compeyson, and he is never brought into the warm circle of the novel's understanding. Like the concentration camp guards in The Reader who frame Kate Winslet, Compeyson can be a conventional villain because we aren't allowed to get to know him at all.
Understanding and condemnation pull in opposite directions. That is why there are endless debates about whether explaining the motives of terrorists automatically involves condoning their actions. In real life, as in fiction, we have difficulty accommodating both impulses.