Culture & Art

Why Hollywood Misinterpreted Bernhard Schlink’s Novel ‘The Reader’

It is the story of the relationship between a teenage boy and an adult woman in the context of Germany after the World War II.

The 2008 Oscar-winning production received critical acclaim at the time of its release and deservedly so. However something is vastly overlooked by the film; a major facet from the source book relates to the taboo of portraying Holocaust stories in American television. But The Reader is not a Holocaust story – that’s the strongest misconception depicted in the motion picture.

The very title The Reader already provides a clue. This is not a story about Hanna, a woman who lived through the war. It is about the reader, Michael, a member of the post-war generation. Bernhard Schlink, the author of the narrative, identifies himself as a child of the war; his story had a very personal perspective. Born in 1944, he is a Law and Philosophy professor in Humboldt University. Apart from his firsthand post-war experience, he is also very well acquainted with Germany’s history.

His personal bias comes through in the writing of the book. While the American production in many ways refused to show a human side of Hanna – Nazis are better portrayed as monsters to avoid moral conflicts – the positive aspects of her character were essential to the story. It is those very aspects that give context to individual struggles existing within the post-war generation. They had not experienced the war but every person born in the 40’s loved someone who did. In Michael’s case that person was Hanna.

This post-war generation of Germany had to live with this feeling of guilt because of the conflicting feelings associated with loving those who participated in the cruel acts of the Holocaust.

When the film casually ignores Hanna’s humanity it is ignoring that millions of people born in the post-war had reasons to sympathize with the war contemporaries. One instance of this disregard is when she says “those who died will remain dead”, going on to explain that she has never thought about what she did ever since she got arrested. This is not to say any of the terrible actions committed during World War II are justifiable but to expect the next generation to simply break the emotional connection established with the previous one is unfair.

The film was not as well received in Germany because the country values the importance of highlighting the softer qualities of such people. The Reader reinforces opposite; that when rightly triggered anyone could have done the same. We are not immune to cruelty and to avoid history from repeating itself this must be recognized. Hollywood remains hesitant in showing that all war is conducted by people. Perhaps this reticence is due to the possibility of misinterpretation in a way that the concept would be likened to declaring that their cruelty was justified. It is not. Schlink told Der Spiegel,

“There is a wide range of blatant misconceptions. As if I meant that Hanna was not guilty due to her alphabetized. As if I meant that when someone is educated that makes them moral. As if I meant that because Hanna learned how to read, she came to terms with her guilt and redeemed herself (…) I wanted to write about my generation. I did not write a book about the Holocaust – that is another misconception I get. I wrote a book about my generation’s relationship with my parent’s generation and with what my parent’s generation did.”

In the film, Hanna’s character seemed somewhat confused, incomplete and undeveloped due to the inaccurate character focus. The film made the presumption that the story was about her repressed actions, not about Michael’s feelings towards her. The fear of accurately portraying the generation of the war compromises its authenticity and the experience of those who knew it.

“This is an important point. The book is about Michael Berg’s story. Due to the fascination that Kate Winslet brings, the film is much more about her story. Ever since the book was published I live with the reproach that Hanna Schmitz went from criminal to heroine and received an unacceptable human side. But if criminals were always monsters, the world would be an easy place. It is not. My generation has experienced in many ways – through teachers or professors, ministers or doctors, uncles or fathers who were once open about their past – what could be then taken as respect, admiration or even love in order to justify these relationships.”

When it comes to German history, American film and media still has much improvement to do. Stories of superficial stereotypes must be evolved to accept the notion that humans are composed of qualities and flaws – both should be acknowledged. It is needed in order for the world to understand its past and avoid making the same mistakes again. The complexity of human beings is essential to comprehend history and to create a brighter future. That should never be left aside.

About The Author

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Susana Boatto

Susana Boatto has acquired a degree in Portuguese and German studies in her homecountry of Brazil. She has worked in linguistic fields, namely publishing and translation, and aspires to get a Master's degree in Cultural Studies in Germany - where she currently lives. Amongst her interests are history, languages and diversity, and she is a firm advocate for human rights.