Thoughts on "The Reader"
Today I saw "The Reader," a film which was much better that I thought it would be. It was very different from most Hollywood films, in that it was filled with ambiguities. The audience is left to ponder the numerous possible motivations for several characters' actions. It was a refreshing change from the black-and-white, good guy v. bad guy tales we usually see.
I am pretty sure that most critics and probably the majority of people who've seen this film have misunderstood aspects of it. My guess is most people saw the character of Hannah Schmitz as an evil woman who had a crisis of conscience at the end of her life. To me this would be a simplistic explanation. First of all, Hannah Schmitz, if a real person, would have had an IQ somewhere between 65 and 75, along with a characterological disorder causing difficulties with empathy. The two in combination explain all of her actions, and lead to the conclusion that she cannot be held to the same standards as a more normal person. I make the assessment of her intelligence based on her illiteracy, her concrete, simplistic thinking, her obedience to authority, and her shame. All of these characteristics are common in people with borderline IQs. The characterological disorder explains her embarrassment at not being able to read despite her seeming lack of guilt over her particular actions. Probably, the character disorder would be a mixed personality disorder, with some sociopathic traits, some narcissistic traits and some schizoid traits. The schizoid traits are manifested in her isolated lifestyle, her lack of friends, and her often emotionless interactions. Her narcissism is manifested in her shame and at the end of the movie, her expressed pride in having learned how to read, totally missing the point of her old friend's question.
So, why did Hannah kill herself and leave money to one of her victims? She may have killed herself as much out of fear of the outside world as out of guilt. As for her last act of repentance, I find this very interesting. One could hypothesize that the trial and long years in prison made her realize at the very least that society found her actions very wrong, and this would have led to embarrassment and shame if not guilt. She may have wanted to be remembered as a better person. But another explanation could be that the continuing gifts of Michael Berg led to a slow character change. Someone she had hurt had to some degree forgiven her, enough to take pity on her and send her meaningful gifts that took a great deal of time to create. This type of action could spur character change. Perhaps it is the only way to create character change in such an individual.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film was the response of the victim. She of course does not want to accept the money. Yet she keeps the tin box, remarking how much it reminds her of a childhood keepsake she once had. Does this indicate she saw a similarity between herself and her persecutor, and if so, was this an intended message of the film? Or could it simply be that the victim wanted to somehow acknowledge the gesture of atonement? Perhaps she was affected by the actions of Michael Berg, and his ability to at least partially forgive the woman who damaged his childhood. Perhaps the film is about a universal desire to try to be a better person, despite the enormity of crimes either perpetrated or suffered by oneself.
Just to break away from the Gaza news, a comment on the wasting of lives, by the means of what Israel is doing in Gaza and by other means. My blogger friend Elizabeth posted this comment of the movie 'The Reader' on her blog. It is an admirable and concise comment.