Scrapbookpages Blog

January 7, 2011

The Reader — is it a pernicious book and movie?

On her blog, Deborah Lipstadt gives a review of the movie, The Reader, which she labels “A Pernicious Book and Movie.”  You can read her review here.

My opinion of the movie is the compete opposite.  The movie is quite educational; it brings up the subject of the “death march” out of Auschwitz in January, 1945 which I have been blogging about recently.

The Reader, which came out on Christmas Day in 2008, was based on an autobiographical novel by German writer Bernard Schlink. The book was an international best seller; it became very popular in America after it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for one of her book club selections.  The movie is now out on DVD.

The Reader stars Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz, a pathetic German woman who was working as a street car conductor in 1958; she had formerly worked as a prison guard at one of the sub-camps of Auschwitz. Kate Winslet won the Academy Award for best Actress for her role.

The main character, Michael Berg, who was born in 1943, was played by 18-year-old German actor David Kross as a 15-year-old and by Ralph Fiennes as an older man.

The story of The Reader is about the first postwar generation of Germans, born between 1943 and 1955, and their struggle to come to terms with the crimes committed by their parents’ generation. Sometimes referred to as “the 68ers,” this generation of Germans identified with the victorious Allies and turned against the older generation, whom they viewed as perpetrators or bystanders during the world’s greatest crime, the Holocaust.

In 1995, when the movie begins, it is the 50ieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II which the 68ers view as their “liberation from the Nazis.” Unlike their parents, the 68ers are ashamed to be German: they don’t fly the German flag, nor sing the German national anthem. Instead, they side with the American occupation and see World War II through the eyes of the victors. It is assumed that the audience knows this and it does not have to be explained in the movie.

The Reader starts off with the Michael Berg character being played by Ralph Fiennes. The first image that flashes on the screen is a white egg cup with two decorative black rings. There is a matching white coffee cup with a black line on the handle. Is this supposed to be symbolic of something? For me, this immediately brought back fond memories of Germany, where soft boiled eggs are typically served in an egg cup. These dishes, which are shown in the opening scene, are typical of the modern style of German furnishings which I saw in 1995 when I visited Germany.

Then the movie quickly shifts into flashback mode: it is 1958 and we see the Michael Berg character now being played by David Kross. Unfortunately, it is not immediately clear that the 15-year-old German boy played by David Kross is the same person as the character played by Ralph Fiennes in the first scenes.

I was impressed by the attention to detail in the 1958 scenes. There is a water heater which uses coal, and one can briefly see the flame under the heater. There is a schrank  (wardrobe) where clothes are hung; German homes had no closets in 1958. There is a down comforter, called a feather bed by the Germans, which could be found in every German home, although down comforters were unknown in America at that time.

I was living in Erlangen, Germany in 1957 and the early scenes of this movie brought back many memories. The city shown in the movie is Neustadt, which has dreary, run down, gray buildings, much like the way Erlangen looked back then. In the book, the city was not named.

In 1958, the older Germans, who were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, didn’t talk about their guilt. On the contrary, they still had pictures of Hitler on their walls and the German veterans of World War II were still singing the Horst Wessel song every night in the beer gardens, even though this was forbidden by the American occupation. However, none of this is pointed out in the movie.

While living in Germany in 1958, I heard more than one older German say: “Hitler was a great man – he got the Jews out of Europe.” Not out of Germany – out of Europe. The Jews had previously been expelled many times from one country or another in Europe, but this was the first time that all of the Jews in Europe had been driven out by one man: Adolf Hitler.

In a trailer for the movie Valkyrie, Tom Cruise says, regarding Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler, that the conspirators were “taking down the greatest evil ever known,” meaning Nazi Germany. But in 1958, the majority of Germans in the older generation did not consider the Nazis to be the greatest evil ever known; they still thought of Nazi Germany as a paradise.

The first part of The Reader is about Michael Berg’s love affair with Hanna Schmitz, who is old enough to be his mother and in fact, on a holiday trip, she is mistaken for his mother by a waitress. Hanna loves to have Michael read to her from the books that he is studying in school. In the book, it is explained that Michael’s father has written two books about philosophy and that his family’s home is filled with books, but this is not mentioned in the movie.

The second part of the movie takes place years later in the 1960s when Michael is a law school student. His law professor, who hints at one point in the movie that he is Jewish, is conducting a seminar about a trial of female German war criminals, that is taking place in a German court in an unnamed city, an hour’s drive from the University. He asks his students to attend the trial four days a week, and to take notes for him; the seminar is conducted on Fridays.

The defendants are former female guards at Auschwitz and one of its sub-camps near Krakow. They are on trial for crimes committed at the sub-camp and on a “death march” out of Auschwitz. Michael is astonished to see that one of the women on trial is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, who is now a pathetic shadow of her former self, having aged considerably.

In the movie, Michael’s law professor has previously pointed out to his students that the trials conducted by the German courts are different from the proceedings of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal because the German trials are based on German law. The German courts have to prove individual intent to commit murder, and there has to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, the professor does not explain that the military proceedings, which were conducted by the Allies, were based on the new concept of co-responsibility, which means that any person, connected with any of the concentration camps or the Nazi regime, was guilty of participating in a “common design” to commit war crimes, regardless of his or her personal behavior.

The accused war criminals at Nuremberg were chosen, not because their crimes were the most heinous, but because they represented some particular aspect of Nazi Germany. The purpose was to show that all Germans were guilty, even a journalist who wrote anti-Semitic articles for a German newspaper. After the Allied victory over Germany, the only German heroes were traitors like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who had tried to kill Hitler.

There was a real-life war crimes trial, conducted in Frankfurt, Germany, starting on December 23, 1963 and ending on August 19, 1965, in which 20 SS soldiers who had formerly worked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps were put on trial. They were all low-level personnel who were not important enough to have been put on trial by the Polish courts after the war.

In 1977, another war crimes trial was held in Frankfurt in which the defendants were two SS men charged with killing Jews in the Auschwitz sub-camp of Lagischa and on a “death march.” The trial in the movie is loosely based on these Frankfurt trials.

In her review of the movie, Deborah Lipstadt wrote:

Note that the Nazi camp guard is portrayed as the poor, simple, caring woman.

Are we supposed to feel sorry for her because she could not read and had “no choice” but to be a guard? She could have been a street sweeper. She did not have “no choice.”

Furthermore, the book and movie suggests that the perpetrators were poor ignorant people. This is such a misstatement of fact and the author, Bernard Schlink, as a German knows better.

Many of the leading perpetrators had Ph.D.s or were clergy and lawyers. They were well educated and quite literate. [In fact, certain section of the party specifically sought out well educated people.]

Lipstadt is correct that some of the perpetrators had PhDs  — for example, the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen.  But I don’t think that there were any female guards at a sub-camp who had a PhD.

Lipstadt’s comment that the fictional character in the movie could have chosen to be a street sweeper illustrates the kind of attitude that contributed to Hitler’s negative opinion of the Jews. There were no Jewish street sweepers in Nazi Germany.  This was a job for the Germans.

The job of being a camp guard had more prestige than the job of a street sweeper.  An illiterate woman in Nazi Germany would not have known, before she took a job as a camp guard, that Auschwitz was a “death camp.”  That was not generally known until after the war.

The British conducted a military tribunal in Lüneberg, Germany in September 1945, at which some of the accused were female guards who had formerly worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. As a result of these proceedings, a former SS auxiliary guard named Irma Grese became world famous. She was accused of helping with selections for the gas chamber, one of the charges that was also made against Hanna Schmitz in the movie.

Irma Grese was not well educated; she had left school after finishing the 8th grade. Like the Hanna Schmitz character in the movie, Irma Grese was very naive and partly admitted her guilt at her trial. She was hanged at the age of 21 and because of her bravery in the face of death, she has become a heroine to the Neo-Nazis today.

An SS guard that was noted for being uneducated was Hans Aumeier, who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau until he was relieved of his duties by Commandant Rudolf Höss because of his “corrupt practices.” Aumeier was turned over to the Polish Court by American intelligence officers, after first being indicted, but not prosecuted, by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.

In the movie, Hanna Schmitz confesses in order to avoid revealing her secret shame: she is illiterate.

At the real life Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, the 20,000 people, who attended at least one of the sessions, were appalled by the lack of shame or remorse shown by the defendants. The 68ers, like Michael Berg, couldn’t comprehend why the older generation had committed such crimes. How could anyone justify or forgive the crimes of their parents? Or in Michael’s case, the crimes of a lover who was old enough to be his mother.

From the book, I learned that Hanna was an ethnic German girl living in Rumania before she went to Berlin to get a job at the age of 16. The movie should have explained this because it would have been very unusual to find someone living in Germany who had never learned to read and write.

Regarding the concentration camp guards, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, testified at the Nuremberg IMT that “We had thousands of guards who could hardly speak German, who came from all lands as volunteers…”

At the trial, Michael finally realizes that Hanna is illiterate and he has to make a choice between keeping quiet, or revealing her secret, which would have resulted in Hanna being given a light sentence of 4 years and 3 months, like the other women on trial. If he comes forward as a witness, Michael will have to divulge his own secret: his affair with an older woman at the age of 15. From what little we have seen, in the movie, of Michael’s straight-laced family, we know that they would not have approved of his affair with an older woman.

Michael decides not to reveal the information that would have helped Hanna; she is sentenced to life in prison, but her secret is safe and so is his.

Here is the back story on one of the crimes committed by Hanna:

After the three Auschwitz-Birkenau camps had been abandoned on January 18, 1945 because the Soviet Army was advancing across Poland, the Auschwitz prisoners were taken on several separate “death marches” to Germany where they were put on trains and transported to other concentration camps. On the way, they stopped at night to sleep in barns or whatever shelter they could find.

In the book, it is explained that the marchers from a sub-camp of Auschwitz, that Hanna was guarding, stopped one night in an abandoned village where the guards slept in the priest’s house while the prisoners were locked inside the church.

During the night, the steeple of the church was hit by a bomb and eventually the whole church went up in flames. There had been plenty of time for Hanna and the other guards to have unlocked the church doors, but the guards had their own problems: The house where they were sleeping had been bombed and there was complete chaos, according to the book.

Hanna and the other female guards were charged with a war crime because they had not unlocked the church to save the women. One woman and her daughter managed to survive by climbing up to the narrow “gallery” of the church and standing with their backs to the wall. The church was apparently made of stone and only the rafters and the wooden church pews burned. The next day, the two survivors were able to escape from the church since the steps to the gallery were still intact, but the doors had burned in the fire.

The book is fictional, but curiously the author did not have the two women, who survived, jump out of a window. What kind of a church has no windows?

The story of the Jewish women being burned to death in a church is reminiscent of what happened during World War II at Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village, where 452 women and children were locked inside a church by German Waffen-SS soldiers and allowed to burn to death in June 1944.

Two women managed to escape from the Oradour-sur-Glane church by jumping out of a window; one of these woman lived to be a witness at the French trial of the SS men after the war. Similarly, the daughter, who survived the fire in the locked church, testified against Hanna and the five other guards in a German court. In the book, the mother had emigrated to Israel and she gave a deposition, but did not attend the trial.

When asked why she didn’t unlock the church and let the Jewish women out, Hanna Schmitz said that her job was to guard the prisoners and keep them from escaping.

This was the same excuse given by the Germans who put prisoners from a death march into an unlocked barn in Gardelegen in April 1945, then shot those who tried to escape when a fire started in the barn.

In the Gardelegen story, the Germans justified their actions by claiming that the prisoners would have raped and pillaged and killed civilians in the town of Gardelegen if they had been allowed to escape. A few of the men in the Gardelegen barn did manage to escape by digging tunnels underneath the walls and doors of the burning barn with nothing but a tablespoon and their bare hands.

During Hanna’s trial, we learn that she first started having someone read to her when she forced young girls at the sub-camp near Krakow to read to her. Other reviewers of this movie have speculated that Hanna was abusing these girls sexually, although this was not mentioned in the book. In the book, the author writes that Hanna selected weak girls to put under her protection, then gave them extra food and excused them from work.

At the trial, the female guards testified that the six of them had to each select 10 prisoners to send back to Auschwitz each month. Hanna would always select the young girls who had read to her. Hanna admits during the trial that 60 prisoners were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz each month to make room for 60 new prisoners to work in the factories of the sub-camp.

Some people might question whether an illiterate, female SS auxiliary guard would have been allowed to make selections for the gas chamber, but this is the same crime that Irma Grese was accused of by female Auschwitz survivors. It is important to note that Irma Grese testified, in her trial, that she learned about the existence of the gas chambers only because the prisoners told her about them. In the movie, it is not explained how the female guards knew that the prisoners, whom they were selecting to send back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, were being gassed.

In her testimony, Hanna mentions that she was working for the Siemens company in Berlin when she answered an ad for guards to work at the concentration camps. In the book, it was pointed out that she was offered a promotion at Siemens, but couldn’t accept it because she couldn’t read, so that’s why she volunteered to be a concentration camp guard. In the movie, Hanna says that she “joined the SS” of her own free will, which was important in establishing her guilt.

When Hanna testified that she had voluntarily chosen to be a perpetrator, that was the proof of her intent to commit murder, which was required for conviction according to German law. It is also why she could never be forgiven by the survivors and by the Germans of Michael’s generation.

The proof of the crime of deliberately allowing the Jewish women to be burned alive in the church consisted of a written report about the incident. The other defendants at the trial all claimed that Hanna wrote the report, and the judge asks Hanna for a sample of her handwriting to compare with the handwriting on the report. Hanna finally confesses that she did, in fact, write the report because she cannot admit that she cannot write anything more than her name. To her, illiteracy is more shameful than the mass murder of innocent Jewish women.

Some reviewers of the movie have questioned the historical accuracy of the Nazis “policing themselves” by doing an investigation of an atrocity which involved writing reports, such as the report about the women being burned to death in the church.

There was a real life incident at the Budy sub-camp of Auschwitz, called the “Budy revolt,” in which 90 French Jewish women were killed by the SS female guards.  According to the official web site of the Auschwitz Museum, “The massacre of the French Jewish women prisoners took place in early October. Using clubs, hatchets, and rifle butts — and throwing some of their victims from the windows in the loft of the building — female prisoner functionaries and SS guards butchered 90 women. The camp administration investigated the incident, but failed to discover the cause.”

While he is trying to decide what to do about his feelings for his former lover, whom he now knows is a war criminal, Michael goes to visit a former concentration camp, which is not identified, but it appears to be the Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland.

We see him walking into the shower room at Majdanek where the prisoners had to take a shower before entering the gas chamber in order to warm their bodies to make the gas kill them faster.  (When I visited Majdanek in 1998, there was a sign in the gas chamber building which explained that the shower was for the purpose of warming up the prisoners so that the poison gas would kill them more quickly.)

Then we see Michael enter one of the warehouse buildings at Majdanek where 800,000 pairs of shoes are still stored in wire bins. The warehouse is pitch black and the shoes are barely visible, but a golden light shines on Michael’s head and follows him as he walks deep inside the dark building. This scene brings out the theme of the movie, which is that Michael is an innocent 68er with a light shining down on him because he does not share the guilt of the Germans who murdered 1.5 million people at Majdanek, according to the charges of the Soviet Union at the Nuremberg IMT.

Near the end of the movie, Michael comes to terms with his feelings about the older generation of German war criminals and decides to help Hanna start her life over, after she has served 20 years in prison. But Hanna inexplicably decides to kill herself the day before she is to be released. Where have we heard this story before?

The author of the book seems to have used several true stories to put together his novel: Ilse Koch, perhaps the most famous female war criminal of World War II, killed herself in prison after serving exactly 20 years of a life sentence handed down by a German court which put her on trial in 1947.

Ilse Koch was the “bitch of Buchenwald,” who had prisoners killed so that she could have lamp shades made from their tattooed skin. While she was imprisoned at Dachau, awaiting trial, Ilse Koch became pregnant, but when her son was born, he was taken away from her. Twenty years later, her son came to visit her. The night before another scheduled visit by her son, Ilse Koch killed herself.

In a scene near the end of the movie, Michael goes to the expensive, luxurious New York apartment of the daughter whose testimony had put Hanna in prison for 20 years. Living well is the best revenge, and it seems that the daughter has gotten her revenge for what she suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Hanna finally learned to read and write, while she was in prison, and she made a handwritten will in which she left all the money, that she had earned in 20 years in prison, to the survivor daughter, who refuses to take it, although she does accept the tin canister in which Hanna kept the money. It turns out that the canister is similar to the one that the daughter brought with her to Auschwitz, filled with her keepsakes. The daughter laments that her tin canister was stolen from her and she accepts Hanna’s tea tin as restitution.

Michael tries to convince the daughter to accept Hanna’s money and give it to a Jewish charitable organization that works to combat illiteracy; the daughter comments that there is not much of an illiteracy problem among the Jews.

Hanna was born in October 1922 according to the book. Hanna’s family might have been destitute when she was a child, which would explain her lack of schooling. Perhaps she had to work as a child instead of getting an education.

This is a movie that will make some people uncomfortable because they might find themselves feeling sorry for a German war criminal. The cold, unforgiving, imperious attitude of the daughter at the end of the movie does not show her as the victim, but rather generates sympathy for Hanna who spent 20 years in prison rather than admit that she was illiterate.

Lipstadt’s final comment about the movie is this:

This is a rewriting of history. It is, simply put, soft core denial. It does not deny the reality or the horror of the Holocaust. Not at all. But it does deny who was responsible.

Lipstadt doesn’t say who is responsible, but I think the implication is that every German was responsible, no matter how small a part they played.

Is The Reader really pernicious?  Pernicious means  “causing insidious harm or ruin; ruinous; injurious; hurtful: pernicious teachings; a pernicious lie.”

You can watch it on DVD and decide for yourself.


  1. […] Several years ago, there was a movie entitled The Reader which showed a trial that was something like the Auschwitz trial.  I blogged about the movie at […]

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  2. […] I previously wrote a blog post, in which I contrasted Lipstadt’s attitude compared to to my way of thinking: […]

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