Doodad Kind of Town


Thoughts on "The Reader" and "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"
February 15, 2009, 9:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been two weeks now since I saw Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated drama “The Reader,” and I’ve been taking my own sweet time getting around to writing about it. More to the point, it’s taken me some time to process my own complicated reaction to it.

In the end, it just comes down to this: “The Reader” made me angry. Outraged. Furious, even.

But the fact that it’s a Holocaust drama – and that it’s gotten some great reviews from writers I respect – triggers insecurity in me. The “make nice, get along” side of my personality wants to be careful I don’t step on toes or offend someone, especially when writing about a delicate, sensitive subject such as this. I’ve been second-guessing my anger a lot over the past several days.

And then along comes Ron Rosenbaum. The estimable writer and critic for Slate Monday this week published a damning article entitled “Please Don’t Give an Oscar to ‘The Reader‘,” which echoes every thought I originally had about the film, but backed up with both hard facts and scholarly analysis. Rosenbaum comes right out and calls “The Reader” “the Wost Holocaust Movie Ever Made.” I wouldn’t go quite that far myself; after all, I’ve never seen that long-lost Jerry Lewis movie, “The Day the Clown Cried.” But I’m mightily impressed with the argument he makes.

I have little to add to Rosenbaum’s fine, impassioned article. Ultimately, “The Reader” failed for me because it tried to be too many things, none of them successfully. In the course of its 124 minutes, it morphed from:

  • Erotic coming-of-age tale/tribute to the power of literature (Kate Winslet’s 15-year-old lover reads aloud to her before making love)
  • to

  • Nazi courtroom drama (Winslet, a former Auschwitz guard is tried for the murder of 300 Jewish women, as her former lover – now a 23-year-old law student -looks on in anguish)
  • to

  • Boy-grows-up-and-mourns-lost-love weepie (boy grows up to be a cold, expressionless Ralph Fiennes)
  • to

  • Uplifting triumph-of-the-human-spirit tale (the illiterate Winslet teaches herself to read in prison! Yay!)
  • to

  • Tragedy for Winslet, catharsis for Fiennes, and a great scene for Lena Olin as an Auschwitz survivor who cuts through Fiennes teary-eyed bullshit with the best speech in the entire film.
  • (Or, as another Slate writer neatly summed it up, the alternative title for this film might well be “Boo Hoo, I Boinked an Illiterate Nazi.”)

    This is a queasy mix at best. And unfortunately, the only character who puts the whole thing into perspective- Olin, cautioning Fiennes about the inappropriateness of sentimentalizing the Holocaust – doesn’t show up until the film’s eleventh hour.

    Winslet is probably going to win an Oscar for this, and that’s fine. She brings a certain stubborn dignity to her role, never openly courting our compassion or sympathy, even when the screenplay and direction work to manipulate us towards such feelings. She’s a gifted actress who’s overdue for a statuette, so it might as well be for this shameless award-whore of a film as for any other.

    In alll honesty, though, my feelings about “The Reader” were strongly influenced by another film I saw a few weeks earlier, one which Rosenbaum mentions briefly in his article: “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.”

    “Sophie Scholl..,” a harrowing and powerful film, is based on the true story of the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany. It chronicles the last six days in the life of Scholl, who along with her brother Hans, was convicted of treason for distributing leaflets that criticized Hitler and called for the end of the war just after the German troops had been badly defeated at Leningrad in 1943. In just those six days- starting from the morning that Hans and Sophie drop their mimeographed leaflets outside university classroom doors – the Scholl siblings (plus a fellow White Rose member, Christoph Probst) were arrested, interrogated, tried, convicted and executed.

    The film is constructed and directed (by Marc Rothemund) in such a way that we acutely feel the horrible speed with which these promising young lives were ended. There’s a bare minimum of exposition at the film’s beginning; less than ten minutes in, we’re watching Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and Sophie (Julia Jentsch) as they stealthily deposit stacks of letters in the halls of the university. The urgent editing, swiftly moving camera and insistent drumbeat on the underscoring musical track all work to create a mounting sense of dread throughout this sequence. And, indeed, Hans and Sophie are apprehended and taken to university authorities almost the instant the leaflet distribution is complete.

    From there, the film moves to the interrogation office of Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), where Sophie is questioned. She initially denies any involvement, repeatedly calling herself apolitical. But when she is confronted with evidence, plus her brother’s confession, Sophie relents and takes full responsibility for her actions.

    What follows are scenes whose dialogue is taken from actual interrogation transcripts. Throughout his relentless questioning, Mohr develops respect for Sophie’s passion, intelligence and deep convictions. He offers her ways to save herself (naming other White Rose members, admitting she was under her brother’s influence and didn’t understand what she was doing), but Sophie won’t have it. She remains steadfast in her admission of guilt, as well as in her moral outrage against the Third Reich.

    The interrogation scenes make up a significant portion of “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” and even though they’re shot in what I call the “standard tennis match” style (cut to shot of person on one side of desk, making a point; cut to person on other side of desk responding; cut to first person making a counterpoint, and so on), they are riveting. Much of the credit must go to the two fine actors. Held is wary and calculated, balancing his concern for Sophie with his professional obligation to get the truth from her in a such a way that we can just barely see his thought process play across his face.

    Jenstch, her square jaw set resolutely, brings a groundedness, fearlessness and uncompromising intelligence to her portrayal of Sophie. She’s excoriating in her outrage at Hitler and the Third Reich, all the more so as she expresses it with quiet conviction instead of angry shouts. Yet, while she’s formidable, Jentsch’s Sophie is never less than human. She never lets us forget that, for all her extraordinary qualities, Sophie was also an ordinary, 21-year-old girl. Witness the wonder in her eyes as she describes her fiance to a fellow prisoner, her bubbly enthusiasm as she and a friend crouch close to the radio in her flat to sing along with Billie Holiday. And for all her courage and conviction, Sophie is ultimately as human and frightened as any of us would be in her shoes. Returning to her cell after receiving her death sentence, she doubles over and emits a wounded, animalistic cry; faced with the task of writing a farewell letter to her fiance, she is overcome, sobbing and lost.

    In short, Sophie Scholl emerges as a person like all of us – and yet, the person all of us wonder if we truly have the capacity to be. Just days after I saw “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” my pastor opened a sermon with the words “What are you willing to die for?” The martyrdom of Sophie Scholl was the first thing that came to my mind.

    So, you’ll excuse me if I can’t work up tears for a fictional Auschwitz guard whose greatest shame is not that she let 300 women burn to death inside a church bombed by the Allies, but that she (sob!) can’t read. I’ll save my tears for the real woman who was courageous enough to stand up for the truth – and lost her life for it.

    Something else has occurred to me since: “The Reader” purports to be, in part, about the power of the written word. But how much more does “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” attest to that power? It’s all well and good to show Winslet sobbing in her young lover’s arms as he reads to her from some classic book or the other. But the students of the White Rose published so-called “leaflets” that were no more than typed, single-spaced sheets filled with criticism of Hitler’s war. And those simple sheets of writing were so threatening to the German government that the authors were killed within six days of their distribution. (As the film notes, it was customary in Hitler’s Germany to allow those convicted of treason 99 days between sentencing and execution; the Scholls and Christoph Probst got only 24 hours.) What does that say about power?

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    21 Comments so far
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    I know we’re generally of the same mind on The Reader already, though I think you were, or have become, a bit more perturbed by it, which I can understand. It’s manipulative, to say the least.Hadn’t seen that blurb (Boo hoo, I boinked an illiterate Nazi) – priceless.

    Comment by Fletch

    i love the Reader, nice movie

    Comment by Entertainment Blog

    Fletch -Yeah, I got pretty riled up again after reading Rosenbaum’s article. It’s solidly researched, and very scathing.Entertainment Blog -Thanks for stopping by. Differences of opinion are always welcomed here. You’re certainly not alone in your appreciation of “The Reader.”

    Comment by Pat

    Hi Pat! THE READER for me is one of the best films of 2008. To those critics you mention, I would add the name of David Thomson, a veteran British-American film scholar (whose opinion is deeply-respected, and whose difficulty-to-please is rather legendary)who flatyly says in his superlative assessment of the film: “THE READER is easily the best film of the year.” But I do not come to the hallowed halls of this esteemed blogsit and to its efferevescent proprietor to wage war, just to express polite disagreement, while also expressing admiration for your superb writing, insights and well-reasoned disclaimers. I DO agree with you on SOPHIE SCHOLE however, lock, stock and barrel. I found THE READER deeply-moving, beautifully acted and crafted, and despite what Ron Rosenbaum inexplicable contends, it not really a Holocaust movie at all, not remotely. It’s about the age-old inability of people from different generations to connect, and of non-conformity. The Holocaust issue, although examined late in the film is only a pretext to explore the films larger issues. Th ewhole thing worked for me. It’s one of the moving films I’ve seen in years.

    Comment by Sam Juliano

    Very interesting write-up. I haven’t see either of these films – I’ve about had it with movies and the Holocaust – but I understand your problem as if I had seen them.Our esteemed colleague Sam mentions using the Holocaust to contextualize the main issue. Sorry, Sam, but the Holocaust can never be a backdrop because it is a singular event that overwhelms other human concerns. And the fact that younger filmmakers and viewers don’t see this means that the admonishment to “never forget” is already losing to the sands of time. Perhaps this is the generational conflict you mention.BTW, Pat, I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly yesterday. You were SO RIGHT! Thanks.

    Comment by Marilyn

    “Sorry, Sam, but the Holocaust can never be a backdrop because it is a singular event that overwhelms other human concerns. And the fact that younger filmmakers and viewers don’t see this means that the admonishment to “never forget” is already losing to the sands of time. Perhaps this is the generational conflict you mention.”Oh I don’t agree with that at all Marilyn, with all due respect to you. The Holocaust does overwhelm all other issues, but only when it’s at the forefront, which it is not here. Why would the ‘contexualization’ of this most heinous of all ecvents ‘comprise’ as you seem to contend, the human drama that is played out far away from these boundaries? I’m sorry, but I happen to agree with a vast number of major critics, who take the opposite position as you have here. The Holocaust in this context DOES NOT overwhelm the essence of this film at all. But again, that’s my take. But listen, listen, listen Marilyn. Before this gets out of hand, (and my intentions here are misread) and I want to avert any kind of repeat of a former row at another site months back due to disagreement on films, this is only a friendly and enriching discussion of a film, and nothing more. I have been over to your site and am always enriched by it, and marvel at your talent.And I think the world of Pat. 99% of the time I agree with her. I admit I get very defensive about movies that make my annual Top Five. I treat them as “sacred cows” so to speak. And when movies move me emotionally (like THE READER has) I come out swinging. My friends here in Fairview, New Jersey know me well on that count! LOL! I like Pat a lot. And I like you too.

    Comment by Sam Juliano

    To add to my previous post, I want to reiterate that the Holocaust theme, as Pat rightly contends, dwarfs everything else, especially when it is the central theme, as it is in Malle’s AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS and De Sica’s THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS, among others. In those films, a human drama is played out, where the Holocausdt theme/issue is relevent to the very fabric and human drama played out. This in my view is not true with THE READER, and I do believe the filmmakers got it right. To allow this catastrophic event to even partially mitigate the vital human concerns within the framework of the drama is to deny the work’s very intentions, and compromise what it is really all about. I neither feel that the original novel, nor this film adapatation have “forgotten” anything at all in this sense, but have chosen to express themselves within a far different “parameter” if you will.But again, this is film discussion here, with two lovely ladies, both of whose opinions I greatly respect (and admire).

    Comment by Sam Juliano

    And I like you both, so no worries from me!Sam, I always appreciate your thoughtful commentary, and as I told the commenter above “Differences of opinion are always welcomed here.” If I weren’t challenged strongly once in awhile, my thoughts wouldn’t be worth spit. And I certainly understand getting defensive about films you love, I get that way, too, and I’ve come out swinging on comments threads myself once in awhile. (If you doubt that, pop over to “Ferdy on Films” and see my comments on “Revolutionary Road”!)However, having said all that, I don’t think I can get to where you are on “The Reader,” Sam. I’m of the same mind as Marilyn here; the Holocaust is too big and too horrific in and of itself to be properly used as a backdrop on which to hang lesser issues. (and for me, Hannah’s illiteracy and Michael’s emotional hang-ups are pretty small potatoes next to genocide.)Many fine writers whom I respect (you included) have had wonderful things to say about “The Reader,” and I’ve tried to take them all into account, as I noted in my post. But the bottom line is that my gut reaction while watching it was one of anger and disgust.Nevertheless, I will seek out the words of David Thomson,at your recommendation because I would be interested to hear what he has to say in the film’s defense.Oh, and Marilyn — I’m glad you liked “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” It’s a beautiful film.

    Comment by Pat

    Sam – our last two commments crossed in transition.I’ll take you word about the novel. My copy is currently languishing around the middle of a very large pile of Books I Keep Meaning to Read. I have only the film to go on here.

    Comment by Pat

    Lovely response from a lovely human being!I will indeed go over to FERDY ON FILMS and check out your comments on REVOULTIONARY ROAD now. I am hoping I haven’t offended Marilyn. She is a terrific person and fantastic writer.

    Comment by Sam Juliano

    I hope you both know by now that I don’t get offended even a little by differences of opinion – only by personal attacks that substitute for reasoned argument. Neither of you have ever done that. I like being challenged because it helps me grow and become a better viewer and critic. So thank you.I remember after 9/11 writers saying that anything they could do now would be a waste of time or inadequate. They felt they had nothing to offer in the wake of this horrible tragedy.Of course, they were wrong, and perhaps I am, too. What disturbs me is the fact that the further away we get from a horrible event, the less significance it has. It becomes possible to tell a story using the unthinkable as a backdrop without people noticing the subtle shift from “never forget” to “that was then, this is now.” Of course, being human, we each live in our own time and care about what happens now. The universals of life confront every age, and should be dealt with in the art of every age in current terms.The problem I see with appropriating the Holocaust for this conversation is that it seems to be developing into a generic atrocity, something people use to examine the compromises people make. I saw a film called Good that dealt with a seemingly decent man who “inexplicably” finds himself selling out his best friend, rising in the ranks of SS, marrying the most Aryan woman on the planet, and finding himself inspecting a concentration camp, still believing himself to be good.This is not how people make compromises. I’ve been around enough people who have everything and still feel angry and aggrieved because anyone dares to ask for an equally good life and a share of power. These are gruelsome, deeply prejudiced, arrogant people, and these are the kinds of people who make Holocausts or terrorist attacks.Personally, I think the Holocaust should be used to examine these kinds of people, if it is used at all. This is the kind of human condition for which the Holocaust is uniquely suited. I have never seen it used in a “normal” human drama where it didn’t feel awkward or like overkill.Again, I emphasize I have not seen or read The Reader. Was Winslet’s character revealed to be monstrous in some way? This is the only way I could see the juxtaposition of the stories working coherently.

    Comment by Marilyn

    Marilyn -Thanks for sharing your thoughts.To answer your question, no, Winslet’s character is not shown to be any kind of monster, but rather an unwitting pawn in the Holocaust. She initially takes the guard job at Auschwitz to avoid a promotion from her factory line job to an office position – a position which would expose her shameful secret: illiteracy. (Why she can’t refuse the office job and keep working on the factory line isn’t explained.) Her testimony in the war crimes trial is that she was just doing her job; the moral implications of hand-picking women to send to the gas chamber or allowing 300 women to burn to death inside a locked church seem to escape her entirely. And the film clearly paints her eventual learing to read as some kind of personal triumph.

    Comment by Pat

    correction to my previous comment – Actually, the moral implications of her actions don’t escape Hannah entirely, but on the witness stand, she steadfastly clings to the defense that she was only doing her job. “What else was I supposed to do?”

    Comment by Pat

    Thanks. Pat. So it is clear that she’s actually not too bothered by her choices because she wants to live.I understand how someone with a fairly ordinary set of values living in a pathologically murderous regime would be too afraid to risk their life to do what’s morally right. The odds of being executed are very high. On the other hand, the evil is of a type to offend even the moral midgets among us. This, again, is my dilemma. Are these people’s personalities really, really scrutinized. The lessons of the Holocaust should go to the heart of evil in humanity, not the banality of survival. It’s a wasted opportunity and a misappropriation of a legacy of martyrdom.

    Comment by Marilyn

    marilyn -I can’t honestly say that the character isn’t bothered by her crimes. But her illiteracy is a much greater shame to her, and that’s what I have a problem stomaching.The character, in fact, receives a much harsher sentence than her fellow guards because she admits to their false accusation that she wrote the official report on the church fire deaths. For her to refute the accusations, she would have to had provided a sample of her own handwriting – again, exposing her illiteracy.

    Comment by Pat

    “The problem I see with appropriating the Holocaust for this conversation is that it seems to be developing into a generic atrocity, something people use to examine the compromises people make. I saw a film called Good that dealt with a seemingly decent man who “inexplicably” finds himself selling out his best friend, rising in the ranks of SS, marrying the most Aryan woman on the planet, and finding himself inspecting a concentration camp, still believing himself to be good.This is not how people make compromises. I’ve been around enough people who have everything and still feel angry and aggrieved because anyone dares to ask for an equally good life and a share of power. These are gruelsome, deeply prejudiced, arrogant people, and these are the kinds of people who make Holocausts or terrorist attacks.Personally, I think the Holocaust should be used to examine these kinds of people, if it is used at all. This is the kind of human condition for which the Holocaust is uniquely suited. I have never seen it used in a “normal” human drama where it didn’t feel awkward or like overkill.”I apologize for getting back to this thread late, but Marilyn, I really don’t know how to respond to this; as always your commentary is brilliant, and definitive. Apparently the filmmakers in THE READER purpously downplayed this calamity, and focused elsewhere, but I’ll admit after reading your argument, their decision seems faulty. Still, the human dram athat played out in THE READER for me was extraordinary, and I was moved, much in the way I was stirred in Daldry’s THE HOURS. I’d be curious to learn if you and Pat were fans of that film. I still hear that Phillip Glass score in my subconscious for sure. Again, Marilyn, I’ll admit I’m speechless over your fecund contentions here.

    Comment by Sam Juliano

    Sam -I, myself, liked “The Hours.” I thought it was a fine adaptation of the book,and I greatly admired Nicole Kidman’s performance. (She hasn’t done anyting near as good since.)

    Comment by Pat

    In scanning these comments, it doesn’t appear that anyone has mentioned Sophie Scholl. I haven’t seen The Reader, but I have seen Sophie Scholl, and I thought it was outstanding. Julia Jentsch gives one of the great performances in modern films, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve read some criticisms of it that claim it was directed without an ounce of style, and I have to strongly disagree. The way Rothemund shoots the discovery and capture of Sophie and Hans is burned into my memory. The look on their faces as they hear the guards coming closer…just amazing stuff.It’s a great film, and thanks, Pat, for helping to get the word out there. I know it was nominated for an Oscar, but that doesn’t mean anyone has seen it.

    Comment by bill r.

    Bill -No style? I find that crticism as bewildering as you do. Yeah, I suppose it does lack the obvious, “Give us an Oscar, please!” production values or any big “awards show clip” scenes, but that is the film’s great strength. Rothemund trusts the story and the actors enough not to sensationalize a story that’s already devastating, and his understated style is what focuses us on the fact that these were ordinary college kids making an extraordinary sacrifice.I found “Sophie Scholl” on the Sundance Channel, where it’s shown fairly frequently (twice in just the last week – I saw it in January), along with a companion documentary, “Sopie Scholl: In Defiance of All Powers,” which features interviews with surviving White Rose members.

    Comment by Pat

    And the method of execution…! Good God, it’s like something you have nightmares about. I was really impressed with that film.How’s the documentary? I have seen it listed on Sundance, but, for some reason, I haven’t gotten around to watching it.There have been other films about the the White Rose (one is called The White Rose from 1982, directed by Michael(?) Verhoeven), but I haven’t seen any of them.

    Comment by bill r.

    That execution scene kept me from sleeping much the night I saw “Sophie Scholl.” It was so abrupt – and the method was so unexpected.The documentary is Ok, feels kind of like a DVD extra for “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” only shown on TV. There are scenes from the film interspersed with the interviews, and you find out what happened to everyone else in the group. Most of the other members were tried a few months after Sophie and Hans – some were executed, but most were “let off” with jail sentences.I have heard of “The White Rose,” but never saw it. I did see a play called “The White Rose” in the early 90s (possibly the source for the film?), so I knew the story going in. Even so, the film just shook me to my core.

    Comment by Pat




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