The Reader: Shame…

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s hard to treat Holocaust films purely as films. The subject matter looms such a long shadow over everything that it feels impossible to take view them simply as films. That’s the very fact that a film like The Reader plays on – some might say cynically – that we’ll see past the weaknesses and be swept up in the story and its supposed significance.

The film presents itself as a traditional rites-of-passage fable as a teenager is given sexual initiation by an attractive, more experienced woman (played by Kate Winslet) in 1950s Germany. A third of the way in, the film twists into all together darker territory. The woman who seemed so distant and unknowable in the first section is found to have been complicit in Holocaust atrocities, and is now facing justice. We follow the young man’s struggle with his conscience as he seeks to decide what to do with evidence that may swing the trial more favourably for her. Years later, all parties are dealing with guilt, and the secrets they have long held dear. All the pieces are in place for a gripping and moving work.

It isn’t, though. Why? The problem lies in the film’s greatest strength – Kate Winslet’s brave and brilliant performance. She spends most of the first part of the film either naked or in her bus conductor’s uniform – all she has is the roles she plays, as a way of protecting her from exposing the depths of who she is. It’s a great performance, and utterly worthy of acclamation and award. She is, though, deliberately unknowable. Which means we never really know why she goes to bed with the teenager at all – in the end, it just feel like a contrived adolescent male fantasy played through the lens of Holocaust (and other) guilt and shame. The teenager’s in over his head – and only realises just how out of his depth he is later in life. It takes most of his life to come to terms with it – but the journey’s so spread out that it never feels like travelling with him, just teleporting from one staging post to the next.

It should be a great film, but it isn’t. Kate Winslet deserves a better film than this for such a brave and humane performance, but she doesn’t get it. There’s another great Holocaust film somewhere in here, but it’s not the film we’re given.

Shame, a real shame.

Schindler’s List & The Good News of Blockbusters

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Blockbusters are bad news. That’s the received critical wisdom. Star Wars, while undoubtedly an iconic movie, is credited with inventing the modern summer event movie that dominates the high concept world of the packed summer (and other holiday) schedules that we now live with. Blockbusters are effects dominated, money driven and are at best the cinematic equivalent of a roller-coaster; exhilarating while you’re on it, but pointless as soon as you’ve finished.

However there’s another side to it. Consider this: Jurassic Park – perhaps the definition of a 90s blockbuster – enabled the production of one of the 90s’ masterpieces, Schindler’s List. This was, as now well recorded, the project Spielberg waited years to make after acquiring the rights to Thomas Keneally’s book. When he finally felt ready to do so, he took his proposal for a three hour black and white documentary style film to MCA president Sid Sheinberg who agreed with one condition – that Spielberg make Jurassic Park too. He obliged, and the fact that he worked on the special effects for the latter while shooting the former in Poland is the bizarre truth. That one financially guaranteed the other is clear; that it maintained the director’s emotional sanity is possibly a reasonable assumption.

It’s said by many that Schindler’s List is beyond criticism because of its subject matter. However, as I approached the recent DVD re-issue, ‘appropriate’ criticism lurked in my memory. Don’t I remember being told that the film makes Schindler too simplistic and one-dimensional? Isn’t the girl in the red coat a touch too far? Isn’t it just a little, well, sentimental?

These questions remained unanswered on viewing the film itself. I was angry and tearful at times, yes. But it wasn’t the devastating experience I remember as a student. It’s good, of course, but I left thinking time had played a trick on me and that the few critical voices that had remained in my head had something to say.

Then we come to the main extra on this DVD. It’s a compilation of accounts from survivors. As you listen, you realise you’re hearing the film in the first person. There’s the boy who escapes the ghetto liquidation by telling the SS he’s been ordered to clear the road of debris. There’s Goethe’s servant girl, saying she knew how many people he would kill that day by the hat he chose. Here are the women who huddled into a large room, waiting to see if they’d be gassed or showered. You realise as you listen, that Spielberg simply put memory on film as faithfully as appropriate.

What you realise next is that the masterstroke is indeed the black and white documentary style of the film. One survivor describes the concentration camp as having “no colour”. This, then, was more than an artistic choice. He simply recorded what he heard. Some of it –  you hear words in this documentary from survivors that make it clear that Spielberg left out some things that should never be put on film. Some things, he realised, we don’t need to see. We should only hear some things first person, because, to be honest, we just wouldn’t believe it. What he gave us is enough.

So the DVD package, while light in the number of extras, gives us enough to remind us that what we’re seeing is indeed more than a film; in a sense, it should be beyond criticism. On reflection, the choices that Spielberg made seem appropriate, helping us to absorb all that we need to. Who in their right mind can talk about this the same way we do about American Beauty or Casablanca, however great they are?  – one of the survivors talks of the importance of individual names going on the list, being called out and singled out. The film shows us lives, with names and histories and (in the haunting colour epilogue) futures. Without Jurassic Park’s money, millions of people may never have heard them.

One last thing came to me after pressing stop on this DVD. My father’s mother was a Jew who converted to Christianity. She and her young family escaped invading German forces by the skin of their teeth. As a child, when my father told me this, I often had a dream. I heard boots racing upstairs. Silence. Then shooting. I survived because I was secured to the bottom of a mattress, out of sight. There’s a boy like that in this film. I don’t recall right now if he survived, and I can’t bring myself to check.

These are lives. With names and histories. And thanks to one man, with futures.