Bad Beyond Imagination

Bernhard Schlink's novel, The Reader, is both artistically and morally fraudulent. The oscar-winning film that sprung from it is no better

The success of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader, has proved literally inexorable: it could not be prayed away, fervently though a coterie composed of those with a certain sense of smell wished it consigned to oblivion, if never to the bonfire. To burn such books is to put them in better company than they deserve; but to go along with their many admirers is to subscribe to the virtues of vulgarity and its daimon, smirking fame. Almost ten years ago, when the novel was first pub-lished in English, I set out, in an essay, re-printed in The Benefits of Doubt, my view of the merits imputed to the book by various luminaries, of whom Lady Antonia Fraser, A.S. Byatt, George Steiner, Ruth Rendell and Neal Ascherson carried the greatest candle-power.

For those who had better things to do than discover how trash can be dressed as art, or “mercy” (Ascherson’s contributory term), let me rehearse the plot before considering the film version, which has already been acclaimed as a “masterpiece” by some conspicuously capitalised reviewers. The story’s first-person narrator is the son of a lawyer (Schlink himself is of the same profession), growing up in post-war West Germany. At 15, young Michael is taken ill, on the way to school, outside some low-cost housing. His vomit is sluiced away by a sympathetic woman called Hanna, who calls him “Kid” and, when she sees him crying, takes him in her arms. After the youth recovers from his hepatitis, he goes to thank his benefactress with flowers.

Having offered to walk him home, she says that she has to change her clothes, thus affording him a furtive sight of her upper leg while changing her stockings. As soon as she intercepts his curious look, he flees. But, of course, he comes back and then has some comic difficulties when recruited to refill her coal-scuttle. He gets so dirty that – guess what! – he has to have a bath in her proletarian tub. Once he is clean, Hanna arrives with a towel and says “Come” as she wraps him in it “from head to foot” (no cliché is spurned) and rubs him dry. Then: “…she let the towel fall to the floor. I didn’t dare move. She came so close to me that I could feel her breasts against my back and her stomach against my behind. She was naked too. She put her arms around me, one hand on my chest and the other on my erection.

‘That’s why you’re here!'”

As millions know, and others will quickly guess (click on “The Obvious” on your mental apparatus), young Michael is lured into an enviable arrangement whereby he is initiated by a woman who, in return for erotic instruction, requires him simply to read selections of the world’s classics to her. These include not only Homer’s Odyssey but also Cicero’s orations “against Cataline (sic)”. Does it matter that Schlink misspells Catiline? Only if you are drawn to the petty suspicion that he is truffling his novelette with classy references, the better to establish his cultural credentials and to prove that Hanna, who has a job as a tram conductress, is impressively gluttonous for improvement. Born in 1922, she is a working-class girl, and no fool, but she has, for some never disclosed reason, missed the educational benefits of Germany’s famous school system and so remained illiterate, poor thing.

To Michael’s dismay, she disappears abruptly from his young life. The reason, we later discover, is that she has been offered promotion, as a consequence of her excellence as a conductress, to an office job. Ashamed to confess inability to deal with paperwork, she prefers to vanish.

Years pass and then, by chance, Michael learns that his innocent, carnally generous boyhood mistress has been arraigned as a war criminal. Some insistent victims, who “by rights” – the narrator’s ipsissima verba, as Catiline might say – “ought to be dead”, have laid charges against her and other SS ladies who, all those aeons ago, were guards at Auschwitz and on the death marches which followed the Russian advance towards the camps. Michael attends the trial as a now legally qualified observer.

The back story which emerges is that Hanna was working during the war on the assembly line at a Siemens factory, where – as later when she works on the trams – she was so diligent that she was offered promotion to foreman. Fearing that accepting such an appointment would lead to the shame of being revealed as illiterate, the poor girl preferred to join the SS. In apparently unexpected and by then inescapable consequence, her duties included selecting female victims for the gas chambers, but only – we are promised – after doing whatever she could to keep them in her personal custody for as long as possible, during which time she fed and had sex with a favoured few, so that they could have something nice to remember while they were being choked to death.

Once in court (after such a long time), Hanna is incapable of cunning or prudence: she talks back to the judge in a what-would-you-do-chummy way, thus seeming callous and impenitent (which, in Schlink’s idea of truth, is exactly what she is, in her innocence, poor persecuted child). She thus becomes the self-incriminating patsy at whom the other SS women in the dock can conspire to point the finger. Finally, she admits to being the author of a “report” which declares that some 300 death marchers were locked in a church on a night when allied bombers came over. The church was hit by incendiaries and the guards did not unlock the doors, leaving the prisoners to be roasted alive, by allied bombs, of course. You see: nous sommes tous des assassins.

After the raid, there are only two survivors. They cowered in the organ loft (when “by rights” they should have been cooked) and hence are able to give evidence. The report, of which Hanna has not denied being author, is taken to be conclusive proof that she was leader of the group and deserves exemplary punishment. What irony could be more cruel (so cruel that it makes us forget what she actually did do), since Michael and we know that she is literally incapable of having written anything at all?

Hanna is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The narrator feels (and plans to have us feel) that injustice has been done. However, he is so sensitive to her shame, should she be publicly declared illiterate, that he neither offers to testify nor even thinks to send a quiet word to Hanna’s counsel (or even to the prosecutor) telling him that she is literally incapable of having written the damning report. The film tries to convince us that Michael’s silence is plausible, or even honourable, when in fact its makers must know that Hanna could not possibly be convicted in the way that we are shown and that no one who cared for her and who had the adult Michael’s savvy would allow her to languish in jail when he has all manner of ways of springing her. The creak of contrivance and false pathos are wince-making.

Instead of doing what any decent person would, Michael prefers, over the long years of her sentence (which embrace his failed marriage), to send the prisoner tapes of his readings, though he cannot summon up the decency, if that is what it would be, to visit her. On the eve of her parole, Hanna hangs herself. (In the movie, we see her kick away the pile of books on which she has been standing, a touch of Oscarworthy cinema.) Her “tragic” death (arty shades of nay-saying Antigone!) leaves Michael with feelings of inadequacy and gives him (and his author) the opportunity to muse about the capri-ciousness of history and our unworthiness to judge others, lest we ourselves be judged. You can hear the comfortable slop of white-wash. “No one,” I observed when I first wrote about the novel, “could recommend The Reader without having a tin ear for fiction and a blind eye for evil.”

How could there be any doubt that so manifest a success as The Reader would be made into a film? Nor is it a surprise that it has been done “tastefully”. Calculation was of the essence of the novel; it began with the seduction of “the reader” (Michael) and of the readers, ourselves, by getting him (and, by proxy, us) into bed with Hanna, thus somehow in her debt, before we know anything about her except that she has a big heart and breasts. Like Agag, Schlink walks delicately; in the present case, between pornography and, oh, forthrightness. Hanna is at least somewhat our dream-girl as well as Michael’s (notice the choice of an ecumenical name, suitable for foreign rights, neither Gunther nor, say, Hermann nor, oh, Adolf would have played in quite the same way).

Since Hanna asks nothing of Michael save that he read to her, so the author, by the banality of his vocabulary, the sugar of his eroticism and the blandness of his brevities, asks nothing of us in the way of hard work. Although narrowing his compass to one sweet case, which is so artfully (in the most disparaging available sense) contrived that he can leave us with the feeling that justice has not been done when a woman who has been guilty of institutional murder is actually sent to prison, Schlink can also imply that all such cases (of which there were hundreds of thousands) belong to the file labelled, as Catiline might wish, de minimis non curamus et nos et lex. There is, is there not, something vindictive about some chosen people who seek belated (key word) retribution or, to be blunt, revenge? Hanna is the bouc émissaire of the sacrificial cult that Christianity has displaced and disgraced.

Now we have the movie. How does it, and then again how could it, differ from the ur-tale? The anecdote is, in the expected event, little changed; not because some core of essential truth, or of narrative originality, or of ingenious plotting, but because it is so tackily composed of moral matchwood that no significant element could be altered without the whole thing collapsing. A myth of substance can be rendered in a variety of ways, some of which – Euripides’s Helen offers a somewhat apposite case – may deconstruct a “classic” character and show her to be quite other than orthodox solemnity depicts her. Could one imagine a writer of moral independence, or salacious wit, who supplied a Hanna whose abruptly revealed secret self would subvert Schlink’s innocent picture of her and then of himself? Might such a Hanna be shown to have used Michael’s adolescent appetites to furnish her with sexual pleasure that doubled for evidence of the vacuousness of post-war, post-moral Europe? Such a Hanna could have stood for the whited sepulchre of Germany’s – and even of Europe’s – conscience. And then, when the grown-up Michael discovers what she really did in the war, might his imagination be furnished with uncomfortable fantasies, his innocent pleasure being revised in the light of having shafted a murderess? Might he now discover responses in himself, concerning the epoch in which his somewhat Nazi father was involved, of which indifference might be the most embarrassing and a kind of erotic complicity the most delicious? Nothing of this kind happens because, of course, imagination – in the sense of accurate recreation – is entirely beyond Schlink’s advocating skill. Michael mopes, but he doesn’t change, doesn’t think back or forward or sideways: he neither resumes a (perhaps) angry, thus delicious, relationship with his wife nor does anything that means a dangerous turn in his view of life.

A novelist of some daring, or decadence, might fold in an ironic play on the theme of the innocence (not to say mindlessness) of the eternal female. Hanna’s innocence might then be unmasked to show the duplicity of The Quintessential Frau, who is by definition without moral knowledge and hence without moral scruple. Such a view of women is entirely consistent with a certain strain of the higher nuttiness to be found in a solemn tradition that stretches from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to the point where genius and crackpottery meet in Otto Weininger’s 1903 pseudo-masterpiece Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character). It then rolls on into the “philosophy” that armed National Socialism (Carl Schmitt is the grandest example; Alfred Rosenberg the most fatuous). The metaphysics of Germanic vanity (which others might read for insecurity) regularly postulated polarities of natural good and evil: male/female, Aryan/Semite. The pity which Schlink seems to advertise for Hanna is furtively derisive: somewhere along the line she is the sister of Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow, of which Ken Loach made a movie in 1967.

The writer of screenplays (in the case of The Reader, Sir David Hare) has a compromised innocence of much the same order as Hanna. To be more candid than prudence might advise, I can imagine having been offered the tempting chalice of such an adaptation. It would have been the more delectable for asking so little, in terms of invention, in return for so much, in the way of cash and kudos. All that was required, and almost all that is supplied, is a cosmetic refiguration of prose and (minimal) chat into dialogue and stage directions. Old rope was never better rewarded, but a man may hang himself with it, all the same.

What then is different in the movie? At the very beginning, we are shown Ralph Fiennes, the mature Michael, looking pained and cryptic (as if that particular actor were capable of any other expression) in a luxurious apartment in which, to prove just how adult this movie is going to be, his naked, modern mistress, for whom he scarcely spares an interested look, walks briefly into shot before leaving for her office. Here is a sad, sad man, we are promised, whose memories – stirred by a Michael’s point-of-view image of a passing train (doubling for the tram in which we will later see Hanna) – have blighted his present.

As expected, the film version of The Reader cleaves, for the most part, to the Schlink line, although Michael’s hepatitis, in the novel, becomes scarlet fever in the movie (would it be too much to guess that audience research, or the producers’ shrewd guess, indicated that hepatitis was either unknown to most punters, or taken to be a form of VD, whereas scarlet fever sounds nasty, but not lethal or immoral?). So closely does the first, long section track the text that not only are we treated to the naked Hanna (Kate Winslet strips pluckily, as promised on the poster, in the trailer, and by her brave repute) but also to a glimpse of young Michael’s measurable, if limp, manhood (the novel takes a stiffer line). If that isn’t explicitly popular art, Stephen Daldry and Sir David don’t know what is. Synecdoche made flesh, what more could people want? The truth? That’s a matter of opinion.

Actually, no, because now we come to the place of facts in fictions, and especially in those that fly the swastika. Let us have no nonsense here. No one ever expected Nazism and its history to tool up a profitable industry. For a longish period after the war, the charm of the SS went unrealised and unexploited. The sadistic appeal of the camps and the kit, cruelty and murder as merchandise, the voyeuristic erotics of barbarism, these things escaped the sadly straight survivors of the war as they sat on their 1940s utility furniture. The revelation of what the Nazis did came out first in the form of a rather cheap, certainly non-academic book by Lord Russell of Liverpool, The Scourge of the Swastika. The alert salaciousness of the modern mind will have no difficulty seeing why the book had an unforeseen success. It just happened to contain photographs of naked female concentration camp inmates parading past leering, jack-booted, enviably tailored guards of the kind which, a few decades later, Dirk Bogarde impersonated in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, a confection of politically-engaged “art” with the swastika’ed wardrobe that could be seen in Paris, during the 1960s, on the caches-sexe of the sugar-titted chorenes at the Crazy Horse Saloon in the Avenue Georges V.

Let me now cut to the chase. My simple charge, which is not a matter of opinion to be challenged by Antonia Byatt and her troop of “Big Names”, is that neither in life nor, therefore, in a fiction that claims to be life-like, could the illiterate Hanna have joined the SS. In generous response to my inquiry, Michael Burleigh, a professional historian who spent many years becoming a, not to say the, leading authority on the Nazi regime, informed me, “Every recruit [to the SS] had to fill in a form (quite a long one) nowadays held in the Berlin document centre/Holocaust Museum – I’ve used hundreds of them myself. Such a bureaucratic regime required literacy of its servants.”

Schlink actually claims, in the novel, that Hanna saw an advertisement for “jobs” in the SS in a newspaper, though how she could have read it is an unanswered question. Burleigh remarks, “The SS did not need to advertise and the Totenkopf regiment/division (ie camp personnel) were an elite within an elite who would have been selected from existing members… [although] towards the end of the war people were drafted.” Hanna, however, at no stage says that she was conscripted.

We may therefore conclude that the central point about The Reader, that it proves that fiction too can be a fake and a fraud, does not fall under the de gustibus clause: it wilfully cheats and distorts what actually happened in order to play a malign version of the Arendt moral impartiality: Hanna and her victims (she regularly selects women to be sent to the gas chamber) can now be herded into a common category of history’s unfortunate little people (Thomas Mann, in Royal Highness, made prescient play with the indifference of princes, and classy writers, who feel no great distress when the nameless become casualties).

As for the implication that Hanna had no choice but to make the best of a literally bad job, Burleigh confirms, “There were people who refused to kill, but the Totenkopf…were not among them. I can’t recall any examples of people being punished – the gas chamber people were all real experts and, though they sometimes grumbled, tended to be enthusiasts.” For those who want to exempt women from vicious enthusiasm, Burleigh’s Death and Deliverance may abate their sentimentality, though I doubt if Schlink or the filmmakers ever consulted it.

The film has small cinematic resource. It is as expert a product as it is trite in its framing, playing and pseudo-fucking. There is a single slightly subtle moment, when the boy Michael is seen arranging his stamp collection, among which are ranged some swastika’ed values from the Führer’s days. Daldry, when subserviently interviewed by press puffers, found comradely time to praise Sir David’s script, which is markedly lacking in wit (the film entirely lacks laughs, which would puncture its whole pseudo-seriousness). Daldry picked out the final scene, for which (unusually in Hare’s dogged loyalty to the text) there is no precedent in the novel. Here Sir David is licensed to display all his insightful originality, what there is of it.

The scene takes place in a camp survivor’s New York apartment. She is now a comely and elegant not-so-young woman. Michael, montonously impersonated by Fiennes, calls on her for some sad reason, seeking “closure” perhaps, and finds her in such luxurious circumstances that we are incited more to envy than to pity her (the reverse of what we are rigged to feel about Hanna).

In the course of award-winning dialogue about “the camps”, the vigilant cinéaste might note a slightly out-of-focus modern abstract sculpture, just lumpy enough to deserve a Sight and Sound footnote about the sly intrusion of an image of the Golden Calf, a common centre of worship, no doubt, for lucky survivors. To make a solemn point, as spuriously moral as everything we have seen so far, Fiennes ends by asking the lady about what (presumably what moral or uplifting thought) “came out of the camps”.

This allows her to reply: “Nothing came out of the camps.” At which he departs, closure not quite achieved, since history’s biggest cracker has been said, by One Who Ought to Know, to contain no redemptive motto. Nothing came out of the camps? Yes, it did, though: the recipe for the kind of porno-kitsch to which Schlink’s (and Daldry’s and David Hare’s) The Reader add their po-faced mite. Turn it over and you will see that it is stamped Boffo on the obverse side. Saul Friedländer’s Kitsche and Death is a primer of the kind of “art” that death-worship excited. Part of the vast compendium of verbiage and images that came out of the camps (Luchino Visconti’s The Damned is as camp as a maestro can hope to get) includes the kind of aromatic porno-pomposity of which Schlink’s novel and Daldry and Sir David’s catchpenny confection are well-sugared, award-winning, thought-provoking, barefaced and bare-arsed instances. The final twist in this tale is that, since Winslet, Daldry and Hare are all British candidates for the Oscar, it has become arguably unpatriotic not to applaud their enterprise. Sometimes only Ahasuerus is licensed to speak without fear or hope of favour.

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