Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Sympathy with the Perpetrators: Examining the Appropriation of Schlink's 'Der Vorleser' in the Film 'The Reader'

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Sympathy with the Perpetrators: Examining the Appropriation of Schlink's 'Der Vorleser' in the Film 'The Reader'

Article excerpt

At the turn of the millennium, we face a situation that will change the way the Holocaust is remembered and memorialised. Remaining survivors of the genocide against the Jews of Europe are becoming fewer in number. The imperative to "share memories that will soon be lost" (Wiesel 2006:xv) increases in inverse proportion, and accounts, in part, for the steady proliferation of, and wide-scale public interest in, Holocaust memorials and museums. But when the witnesses are no longer with us, and when first-hand accounts of the tragedy cease to find fresh expression, the role of art and architecture will come to the fore as among the most enduring means of Holocaust representation. This development presents, as scholars have noted, complex ethical problems.

As the event recedes temporally, "it grows more and more difficult to recapture the way it was for those who faced it: everything has come to depend on who tells the tale, and how" (Langer 2006:xi). The distasteful or voyeuristic potential of Holocaust art and museum culture, and the limits of artistic representation, have been heatedly debated in the literature to date (Ezrahi 1996:121-54; Stier 2010:505-536; Feinstein 2001:718-738). These issues affect what Marianne Hirsch has called the "generation of post-memory" which must ponder the questions: "What do we owe the victims? How can we best carry their stories forward, without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories displaced by them? How are we implicated in the aftermath of crimes we did not ourselves commit?" (Hirsch 2012:1).

Hirsch's pointed reflections do more than ask the pragmatic question of how post-Holocaust generations of artists are "supposed to remember' events they never experienced directly" (see Young 2000:1). Her questions point to how later-generational representations of the Holocaust risk drawing attention to the artist and to his or her "story," and doing the victims a double disservice thereby. This issue is pertinent to fictional representations of the Holocaust.

The purpose of this essay is to analyse one such example, Bernard Schlink's 1995 novel, Der Vorleser, and its adaptations. Schlink's novel was translated into English in 1997 and became a controversial, international best-seller. In 2008 the novel was adapted to film and directed by Steven Daldry (2008:Weinstein Company), based on the screenplay by British playwright David Hare. The Hollywood film was a commercial success but received ambivalent critical reviews. The major point of contention was the same for the film as it was for the novel--an overtly sympathetic characterisation of the heroine, Hanna Schmidt, who it turns out, was a former SS guard at Auschwitz and is on trial for her role in letting 300 Jewish women burn to death in a locked church. Hanna hides a mitigating secret, however: she is illiterate, and thus could not have held full, authorising responsibility for the crime for which she is convicted. Out of shame, she keeps her secret, and receives a sentence of life in prison.

The sympathetic characterisation of Hanna does not stop at her illiteracy; in her mid-thirties, she has an intense sexual affair with a teenager, Michael Berg. The affair blossoms into love but ends mysteriously when Hanna leaves town--we later find out, for fear of being promoted and thus having an office job requiring literacy skills she lacked. The affair and its abrupt ending disturb Michael, from whose point of view the story is told, leaving him an emotional cripple well into his adult years. Michael only understands the full scope of Hanna's story when he randomly meets her in a war-crimes tribunal; he as a law student, and she in the docks--many years after she had mysteriously left him. The human tragedy of their love-story gone awry is meant to evoke sympathy for Hanna and for Michael, although in different ways. In the temporal world of the story, readers tend to feel a connection with Hanna, through her attachment to Michael, long before they learn about her Nazi past. …

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