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The official HD trailer video of the 2008 film The Reader.

published February 3, 2022

The Reader: What's Been Largely Unread

by Jojo Soria de Veyra

      HE 2008 film The Reader (based on the 1995 novel about post-war Germany by Bernhard Schlink, and starring Ralph Fiennes as lawyer Michael Berg, then 33-year-old Kate Winslet as Hanna, and then-18-year-old David Kross as the young Berg) launched on Netflix on 31 January this year. The film's re-exposure in the year 2022 is quite timely, I would aver, and the following is my explanation:
    During the period of its release 14 years ago, The Reader got mixed to negative reviews, even when it later received a nomination for the Best Picture plum at the 81st Academy Awards. Incidentally, had the film won the award, one of those who would have accepted a trophy would be Jewish director-producer Sydney Pollack.
    But one of the reviews at the time, written by Jewish critic Ron Rosenblaum on Slate, had this to say about the movie’s supposed gist: “so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy – despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills – that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder ... Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you’re guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it’s not shown in the film.”
    I fully understand the emotions the film would have provoked during its first showings, given the immeasurable rightist atrocities towards a religious-cum-ethnic group in 1940s Germany here dug up by the story. But it is perhaps that presence of too much emotion from its audience (and the critical demand for more emotion from the filmmakers) that would prevent anyone now, today, from seeing what I now deem as the film’s other point (or significance) for our present time, and it is a present time decades removed from that Nazi and post-Nazi era, which, notably and precisely, has threatened to return now with the very same old rightisms referenced by the film. More on this later.
    So, another early criticism of the film was that it supposedly “failed to capture the chilling intensity of its source material” (LA Times). We do not know if director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare decided to purposely restrain the film from being too emotional or emotional enough for the sympathies of the left-right-center spectrum of contemporary perspectives. But, again, here’s my left-field reading of what the film might also be about. It is a reading located in the present, as I said, the present within which Netflix decided―for whatever reason―to re-expose the film to the public:
    You see, it’s strange to me that the very critics who panned the ostensibly too-distant screenplay and direction of the movie also applauded Kate Winslet’s subdued acting for the character Hanna, a former Nazi SS guard, for it was precisely in Winslet’s acting during Hanna’s trial that this central character’s educational status became clear. Or was it panned as too distant because it appeared to seek sympathy more for Hanna than for her victims?
    This is the point I’m trying to push―within the recent quick rise of radical rightism in the United States from the emergence of the Tea Party and, soon, Donald Trump’s takeover of the US Republican Party, and thereafter, as well as within the same quick rise of radical rightisms in such countries as the Philippines, paralleled by similar rightist dawnings inside many more-democratic nation-states in Europe, thanks to backing from alt-right stalwart Steve Bannon and his Cambridge Analytica, . . . this is what has become quite so obvious: the easiest manipulations of crowds by political organizations of the right occurred in states, or regions of states, or niches within states, where educational opportunities had not been spread wisely, intentionally or not, among the territory’s citizenry, The Reader thus becomes a perfect parable here. When Hanna asks one of the judges during her trial, “what would you have done?” . . . followed by silence, it is made clear that even educated people find it hard to imagine a decision about what to do during specific quick moments despite their clear political backgrounds. How much more difficult it would be, then, to a citizen untrained or poorly trained in the ethics behind the profession of guarding prisoners! Furthermore, an uneducated citizen would understandably find it hard to decide about what not to do if he/she had already been brainwashed into believing certain truths concerning a certain group of people (whether these truths were pounded onto his/her head by Nazi purveyors of alternative realities concerning the Jews or the blacks, or by orthodox Jewish ones with their own framed realities regarding people of, say, other beliefs). Rosenbaum missed the fact that the film wasn’t just about Hanna’s illiteracy. He even missed the point in Hanna’s final acceptance of the hard-to-accept blame on her person as due to a returning strong guilt; there was already a hint of this guilt during one of the kid Berg’s readings of books in front of her. He missed that, the same way that Ralph Fiennes’ character missed the same context of guilt when an already quinquagenarian Hanna uttered, “it doesn't matter what I think, the dead are still dead.”
    Nor is the film’s story now simply about Hanna’s fellow former Nazi women guards’ lack of training in ethics and morality and courage that made them sacrifice illiterate Hanna, without guilt among their frightened selves. Certainly it is also about something else from outside the film, within the environment surrounding the presence of the film. Directly or indirectly, it is definitely also about our educated selves’ inability to see this: when we find it hard to share with everyone our precious opportunities at getting relatively better education, we become culpable as facilitators of rightism’s unceasing global rejuvenations.
    We only have to look around us today to see the truth of this as a consequence of our niche-selfishness. When we heckle the “bobotantes” (Filipino slang for stupid voters) in our barangays, for example, we are actually flaunting our own myopia toward what’s going on. For those bobotantes weren’t manufactured by their own DNA, they were manufactured by a definite social structure where education has remained a privilege (supported, it would seem, by a prestige-embracing society). And the reason why rightists prefer an ignorant masses is definitely related to the rampant liberalism among the centrist bourgeoisie who continue to enjoy with selfish pride their private schools and privileged state universities over their neighbors’ ill-equipped public ones, a reality the right has found it quite easy to exploit in its conscription of followers.
    Reader, read this: to reiterate, we are all to blame for the creation of that current large international audience for fascism in both its major forms and the different fascisms’ uniform techniques at manipulating the truth and history’s facts. Let’s accept it: we all created the manipulated masses! If we haven’t read that already into what’s been happening in the United States and the Philippines in the last seven years, then perhaps we have not been educated enough ourselves. 


Jojo Soria de Veyra is a painter and critic and the editor of diskurso art magazine.
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