You’ve been told
Turner Classic Movies was playing just now Shadow of a Doubt, with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, an excellent 1943 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Thorton Wilder was one of the writers.
In Shadow, Joseph Cotten plays Charley Oakley, a man who is hiding, who doesn’t want his picture taken, but whose niece (who had been named after him) adores him. The shadow in the title refers to, of course, his niece’s well-placed doubt, but also to Oakley himself, who early on in the film changes in front of our eyes as he arrives into town.
Charley Oakley preyed on rich widows, who probably never even knew his real name. They certainly found out too late who he really was.
Desperate to get away, Charley attempts to kill his niece. She survives, and at the end of the film is grieving for him.
Fast-forward to The Reader, which my family and I went to see yesterday. In The Reader we find another kind of predator: Hannah, a woman who was a former concentration camp guard and who seduces a fifteen year old boy (played by the very beautiful David Kross) who was too young to have lived during the war. She too, is a shadow, she too, doesn’t want the boy to know her name, she too was deadly.
The most heartbreaking moment in the film for me was when the adult Michael started recording the books he had read to her* in their intimacy – in the days when he was able to trust. However, I didn’t buy into the premise that this illiterate woman would have had any conscience that literature could awaken. She remained unscrupulous, unrepentant. Her suicide was brought about by fear of leaving prison, not by any kind of discernable remorse, as far as I’m concerned. (This morning I read Kam Williams’s review, who also didn’t buy into the premise, calling it Springtime for Hitler, the sequel!).
Equally disturbing is the tag line for the movie’s website, “How far would you go to protect a secret?”, as if Hannah’s taking on a 20-yr prison sentence because she didn’t want the world to know she was illiterate was any kind of honor medal.
Indeed, it is Michael’s protection of that secret which lies at the root of his problems: The boy grows up to be a man who has serious issues about intimacy, trust and commitment but who somehow manages to live a stable and successful life otherwise. Wishful thinking perhaps on the part of the writers? My son, who is 17, thought they underplayed how traumatizing such experience with a pedophile would be.
Because of this, The Reader‘s premise of “we’re all guilty, but of what?”, is profoundly immoral.
As in Shadow of the Doubt, the predator in The Reader dies as a consequence of their actions, but life won’t ever really go on as usual.
The Reader starts with the older Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes, in his apartment in 1990, preparing breakfast for a young woman who spent the night with him. The woman asks, “Do any of your women ever get to stay long enough to find out what’s going on inside your head?”
Which, after all, is the crucial question in all human relationships, isn’t it?
Or, as Ralph Fiennes asks in the trailer, “How wrong can you be?”
The script emphasizes a lot the starting passage from The Odyssey,
Sing to me of the man, oh Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course
The connotation that this horrible woman would have warped this young man’s mind to the point where she became his muse didn’t go unnoticed.
UPDATE, Tuesday 10 February
The Reader‘s even worse than I thought
Indeed, 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. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than 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. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.
The Reader is rated R for frontal nudity, sex scenes and mature subject. Leave the children at home.