The Holocaust was an evil of enormous proportions. In the West, at least, it has become an iconic horror, and in the face of similar atrocities, much intellectual labor has been expended to sustain its unique standing in the popular imagination as the evil par excellence. Comparisons and analogies are anathema.
Now defenders of Holocaust as the paradigmatic evil have gone a step further. To make any moral distinctions about perpetrators is to conflate victims with offenders. In a New York Times Week in Review column (“Telling the Holocaust like It Wasn’t”) January 11, Jacob Heilbrunn takes on a series of recent Holocaust films, arguing Hollywood’s desire for “redemptive” stories has resulted in reducing the moral revulsion properly due the Nazis and their willing executioners who carried out the extermination of European Jewry. The case in point is The Reader, the Anthony Mingella-Sydney Pollack film production of the best-selling novel by Bernard Schlink.
Hannah Schmitz is a former prison guard charged with failing to save Jewish women prisoners locked in a burning church. For Heilbrun and other critics the problems is that “Schmitz herself comes across simply as an unthinking tool of the Nazi regime rather than as a fervent anti-Semite.” They are offended, it seems, by the revelation that Schmitz is an illiterate, and even more by the possibility that the shame she carries because of illiteracy, and strategies of avoidance she devised to hide her failing could provide mitigating factors to a reasonable person in judging her responsibility for the crime. Can a person be more complex than her crime? May any perpetrator be less evil than Hitler, morally flawed but not a monster?
For Heilbrunn and other critics, Hollywood (and the author before the moviemakers) has sinned by finding something victimlike in a perpetrator. Hannah is pitiable, loved by at least one other person–the boy who reads to her–and quite possibly undeserving of the harsh sentence meted out to her. (In the book, I think this case is made more clearly than in the movie.) For The Reader’s detractors, Hannah Schmitz should be rejected outright for her crime without a whiff of sympathy. When it comes to the Holocaust everything must be black and white or the monstrousness of the extermination campaign would be diminished. As Heilbrunn writes, the recent films “infantilize the Holocaust.” The irony is that dismissing the possibility of mitigation, of pardon and redemption, the moral universe itself is inverted. Recognizing capacity, motivation, and circumstance as factors in our moral (and legal) judgments is disallowed.
As Elie Wiesel witnessed in Dawn, we live in the age of victim-perpetrators. The stark question raised by The Reader, the movie, is whether the next generation would meet the challenge of moral courage failed by Germans in the Nazi era. In Dawn, the protagonist, a Holocaust survivor, is ordered to execute a kidnapped British officer if the British do not meet the demands of the Zionist terrorist group he has joined. In The Reader, Michael Berg, Hannah’s educated lover and then a law student, realizes her illiteracy during her trial, but, when she admits to writing a confession she could not have written, he fails to meet with her or to reveal his information to the court. With the advantages of education and position, he fails to meet the challenge set him. And Hananh’s question to the presiding judge, “What would you have done?” is addressed to the next generation and succeeding ones as well, particularly to those who would be judges and prosecutors. Don’t we have Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and so many more mass deaths to show how insincere we have been about our “Never again”? Is not the duty to protect is still a hope, not a reality in the largest mass killings of our day?
Hollywood may like happy endings–though the ending of The Reader is deeply sad. But deriding Hollywood’s penchant for lightness, goodness and even pity for the offender as “redemptive”, as Heilbrunn does, means abandoning hope. Without hope and forgiveness, our moral and religious understanding of moral responsibility becomes, like Sisyphus’s rock a great existential weight that oppresses even those who would do good. When defense of the idea of the Holocaust suppresses all moral distinctions and drives hope, forgiveness and redemption from our common life, then evil has won. Maintaining moral distinctions even before great evils means we recognize the good and evil co-exists in all of us, both judge and accuser, and there is still a chance that the good will out, if only in a lighter sentence.
Like Vitorio De Sica’s Garden of the Finzi Contini, another bittersweet Holocaust film, The Reader has a compassionate tone; but it has a tragic, existential current as well, where people who once touched are isolated from one another, and others joined by events cannot reach out to one another. There are also redeeming acts of goodness, which show how people can be a blessing to one another. It those acts of goodness cannot happen, then the very worst in humanity has had the last word.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.