The Reader was my second-favorite film from 2008.  Which I hope doesn’t make me a shill for the Hollywood establishment.  But since I liked it so much, I figured I should at least respond to John’s eloquent (as always) post.  Specifically his problems with how they treated Hannah’s illiteracy.

I agree that it is a problem if you think the reveal that Hannah can’t read was supposed to be a shocking twist.  For me, though, I thought it was more a big secret for Michael than for the audience.  I also didn’t think Hannah’s illiteracy was used to explain or defend her crimes.  Rather, it fit in with one of the major themes of the movie: life sucks.

Honestly, I didn’t think The Reader was a Holocaust movie, using any definition of the phrase other than a movie in which the Holocaust plays a role.  What affected me most was the idea that sometimes life just puts us in bad situations.  That there isn’t always a happy ending.  Michael’s entire life was screwed up as a direct result of his dalliance with Hannah.  And in turn he screwed up his daughter’s life (and probably messed with the lives of countless women).

Sure, the film says that if Hannah could read she probably wouldn’t have gone to the SS.  But that’s not an excuse, it is an example of how sometimes life leads you down a crappy path.  And yeah, if Michael had pointed out that Hannah couldn’t read, maybe that would have changed the outcome of the trial.  Maybe not.  Either way, it wouldn’t have changed what actually happened.

Similarly, I don’t think Hannah finds redemption by learning how to read.  Unless you are making the argument that reading leads to redemption by helping her realize the magnitude of her actions, or to humanize herself, which is why she kills herself.  In which case, OK, you would have liked to have seen something else?  I don’t think the film ever pardons Hannah.  Michael doesn’t.  I don’t think Hannah was emerging from jail a new woman.  And it isn’t like when Michael visits the Holocaust survivor, she forgives Hannah at all.

I know people are upset that The Dark Knight and The Wrestler didn’t get nominated and have focused their anger on The Reader, the surprise nominee.  But I’d suggest that Frost/Nixon should be viewed as a weak link.  Or ask yourself, did anyone really love Benjamin ButtonThe Reader hit me harder than any of those movies.  To me, it was a bleak, bleak look at how sometimes people don’t live happily ever after, that sometimes you can’t fix things, and sometimes one person screwing up things can affect multiple people down the line.  I don’t think the film is trying to address or make a statement about the Holocaust any larger than that it continues, directly or indirectly, to affect people’s lives today.

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