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Sympathy with the perpetrators: examining the appropriation of Schlink's 'Der Vorleser' in the film 'The Reader'.

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.

While Schlink's novel has attracted significant scholarly interpretation and comment, the film The Reader, and the selective adaptation of the novel into film have not yet done the same. Hall (2013:5) finds no relevant articles; I found one short article: Donahue (2012a:249-252). Only one monograph has been published on the topic (Donahue 2012b; paperback and e-book). Donahue's rich study (2012b) extensively examines all of Schlink's "Nazi novels", including his Selbs Justiztrilogy and Der Vorleser, and their adaptation into film. His analysis of Der Vorleser/The Reader is spread across five chapters, and deals with multiple aspects of the text.

Given the constraints of brevity, the current essay will focus squarely on how Schlink's novel and the 2008 film version of The Reader seek to elicit sympathy for the character Hanna. Since other scholars and critics have drawn sufficient attention to the twin issues of Hanna's illiteracy and her sexual vulnerability as motifs that engage the sympathy of readers, this essay will examine a neglected motif that seeks to do the same. I will call this the motif of "poverty and wealth." The aim will be to assess how material descriptors of poverty and wealth function with respect to characterisation--specifically, Hanna's sympathetic characterisation.

The motif of poverty and wealth in The Reader is not wholly neglected in the research; Donahue considers the same motif under the rubric of "class critique" (2012b:3476), claiming that the film emphasises Hanna's lower-class provenance and her sufferance of gender biases to garner viewers' sympathies, whereas the novel pays greater attention to her illiteracy. This is surely the case; but there is another female character in the novel and film who functions as a foil to Hanna according to the "poverty/wealth" motif, and her role has gone largely unexplored. That character is "the Jewish daughter"--one of the two survivors of the church fire, the other being her mother. In the novel, this character is not given a proper name, but in the film she is called "Ilana", from the Hebrew word for "tree".

In the film, she is given a slightly more prominent role than in the novel, although she is present in the same two scenes, which we shall analyse below. In both the novel and film, Ilana is very affluent, but the film and screenplay expand upon this characterisation considerably. So, not only is Hanna presented in the novel and film as a victim of circumstance (poverty) which is no doubt connected to her illiteracy, but the actual victims of Hanna's actions--the surviving Jewish mother and daughter--are cast as excessively wealthy. This essay will claim that the motif of poverty/wealth dictates which characters deserve sympathy and for what reasons, subtly implying that the law courts cannot enact a visible or lasting justice in the face of an economic rationality present in the world that creates its own "winners" and "losers." The same motif is used to elicit sympathy for Hanna and to deflect sympathy from Ilana--who, we are always made to remember, is a "Jewish" character, and wealthy.

This reading differs somewhat from Donahue's interpretation of the "class" motif. His focus is not so much the "foiling" effect of this polarised characterisation of the two women, but the radical differences between Michael Berg's bourgeois background, and Hanna's German working-class one. He argues that the film is visually evocative in a way the novel cannot be, sending a message about "the social provenance of the lower-level collaborators with the Nazi regime" (2012b:3476). The vast divide between Berg's class privilege and Hanna's routine working-life is the point Donahue perceptively hones in upon, arguing that the film, more than the novel, "explores the intriguing question of criminal causality" from a sociological perspective, without making it grounds for exculpation (2012b:3557).

Donahue's analysis hinges on questions of under-privileged social groups being predisposed to submission (2012b:3598), and he later admits that such sociological critique is not really part of the film's "overt ideology" (2012b:3623). Rather, Donahue claims that "male privilege" is a major issue in the film, arising from the film's portrayal of Hanna and Michael's "mutual emotional investment" in the relationship, rather than the novel's one-sided, female-dominated affair (2012b:3640-3665), as well as through Hanna's necessary submission and deference to male SS superiors, who held the real authority (2012b:3747).

But within this schema, Donahue's reading of the fuller significance of Ilana's wealth is downplayed. He understands the film's penultimate scene between Ilana and Michael to indicate the "pastness" of the Holocaust (2012b:3880). Ilana's excessive wealth signifies her survival: she is "a victor, a ruler, a master. She is a rich New York Jew" (2012b:3880). She is not oppressed or continually victimised by the past, even though Michael, who confides in her about his affair with Hanna, appears to be (2012b:3871). Donahue admits that the excessive visual presentation of Ilana's wealth could revive "an anti-Semitic stereotype," but states that such would not have been Daldry's purpose (2012b:3880).

I think the issue of antisemitic stereotypes is brushed over too quickly by Donahue in his otherwise exceptionally detailed and careful analysis. While we do not know Daldry's directorial intentions, (or all of Schlink's authorial ones) we can at least posit that the material descriptors of wealth adhering to Ilana's character can also be interpreted in a negative light. This possibility arises from the interpretive task of character reconstruction itself, which can produce different trait names for characteristics in fiction and film, depending upon the cultural conditioning of the interpreter (see Chatman 1978:123-124). Moreover, the method of "showing" characteristics pertaining to the poverty/wealth motif in Der Vorleser/The Reader accords with what literary theorists call "indirect character presentation" (see Rimmon-Kennan 2002:59-60), which gives the interpreter more recourse to inference than direct means of character presentation (i.e. "telling"). This is not to say that Ilana's characterisation opens up to arbitrary interpretations, for there are other structural cues in the text of the novel and in the film that help the interpreter in the task of character construction.

For example, we can see the motif of poverty/wealth in Der Vorleser/The Reader operating as a "code of the seme", as Roland Barthes styles it (Barthes 1974:18). Structurally, the code of the seme concerns the connotations in a text that accumulate around a character or the actions of a character; these are expressed in typical abstract nouns, of which wealth, beauty, mystery and danger, are examples. The code of the seme is one type of intertextual code that Barthes elaborates. Another is the "cultural code" to which the "code of the seme" is linked. Cultural codes are the discursive backgrounds to which the text refers or alludes, which usually carry a moral authority (Barthes 1978:18). Texts heavy on the code of the seme tend toward a level of predictability and stereotypical patterning--what Barthes calls a "readerly (lisible) text", as opposed to the non-univocal "writerly" (scriptible) text (Allen 2000:89). Despite the apparently post-modern status of the novel and film, with its broken narrative structure conveyed through overlapping time periods--an unconventional "proairetic code" (Barthes 1978:18)--the presence of stereotypical semes make the novel--and film--predictable; they rely on what Barthes alternately called doxa (Barthes 1975:29) and "myth" (Barthes 1972:75): a constructed script that is made to look "natural" but which is thus, essentially, ideological.

In Der Vorleser/The Reader, the semes which accumulate around the Jewish characters, especially Ilana, are drawn from cultural codes positioning Jews with power, money and exorbitant wealth--and, what is more, with an exploitative power over other hapless people deriving from their gratuitous gain. That such antisemitic tropes and cliches fuelled the cultural history of Western Europe is indisputable (Ferguson 1988:1-31; Penslar 2001; Nirenberg 2003:202; Wisse 2007; Muller 2010; Karp 2011:96, 105) and their role in Nazi propaganda about Jewish plutocracy has been well documented (compare Herf 2006:66). There are several ways that The Reader tries to make this constructed association (Jews and wealth) look "natural" in the Barthesian sense, and it makes The Reader appear to be flirting with antisemitic cliches--whether or not this was intended it is surely an effect, and one which should not be brushed aside. The negative characterisation of Ilana as a wealthy Jew is exacerbated when we note that Ilana functions as Hanna's foil, and that the motif of poverty/wealth is appropriated in the service of a sympathetic characterisation of Hanna.

Poverty and Wealth in The Reader

As a narrative motif, the binary "poverty/wealth" is coded frequently throughout The Reader. By far the most common context for the development of this motif is the living quarters of the story's various characters. The socio-economic status of a character is determined by how his/her built environment is described or depicted. In what follows, I will present a close reading of the living environs of both "Hanna Schmidt" and "Ilana Mather" (as she is named in the film). For this analysis I have consulted Schlink's original 1995 German text Der Vorleser (henceforth abbreviated DV), Carol Brown Janeway's 1997 translation The Reader (abbreviated TR), David Hare's adapted Screenplay (abbreviated Sp, published 2009), and Steven Daldry's 2008 film The Reader. The purpose of this multi-level reading is not so much to rehearse the "fidelity debate" in film adaptation--i.e. how closely the film follows the novel (see Elliot 2003; Stam 2005)--but to register the subtle omissions and amplifications around the "poverty/wealth" motif in order to show how Hanna is characterised sympathetically against the background of Ilana's excessive affluence.

Living Environs I: Hanna Schmidt

Hanna's dwellings are typically described in language emphasising near-destitution. In the novel she first emerges to help the sick young Michael from a "dark entryway" (den dunkeln Hausgang) into a courtyard in which were strung clotheslines from window to window "loaded with laundry." Wood is also stacked in the courtyard and nearby, men work in an "open workshop" (TR:4; DV:6). Upon returning to visit Hanna after his recovery, the character-narrator Michael states that her building "dominates the whole row" of the street and that it was "heavy and wide." He "assumed that grand people would live in such a grand building. But because the building had darkened with the passing of the years and the smoke of the trains", Michael "imagined that the grand inhabitants would be just as sombre, and somehow peculiar--deaf or dumb or hunchbacked or lame" (TR:7; DV:9). For Michael, the exterior facade of Hanna's apartment in Banhofstrasse (Station Street) bears some relationship to the characterisation of its inhabitants.

The interior of Hanna's dwellings is described with clear attention to her poverty. The novel tells us that the hallway outside her apartment had "no decorative plaster, no mirrors, no runner" [Kein Stuck, keine Spiegel, kein Laufer]. The "beauty" that the stairwell may once have had is described as "unpretentious" [unsprunglich] and incomparable to the "grandeur of the facade" [der Prachtigkeit der Fassade]. The paint on the stairs was worn through [abgetreten], the linoleum on the walls was "glued" on only to shoulder height and now faded [abgewetzt]. "Bits of string" were used to fill in gaps in the banisters, and the place smelled of cleaning fluid [es roch nach Putzmitteln]. It was at once both "shabby" and "clean" [schabig ... und ... sauber]. The smell of fluid was mixed with the smell of "cabbage or beans, or fried food or boiling laundry" (TR:10-11; DV:12). Michael is led into Hanna's kitchen and becomes aware that she practically lives in a one-room apartment. The room has no window and is "small and cramped" with a coal stove that was "almost never heated in winter." The only window in the second room faced out onto the railroad station. Hanna's apartment also had a "windowless toilet" which, when it smelled, stank out the hall (TR:11-12; DV:14).

David Hare's screenplay, usually sparse in descriptions, goes into considerable detail on this scene (Sp:7-8). The stairwell is described as "once grand, now in decay--green linoleum and faded red paint." It even adds an element not present in the novel--"the sound of a sentimental song at the open door of a small apartment." After Hanna looks at Michael from the open door and asks him to come in, more detail is added: "The flat is without decoration, an enfilade of small rooms. A stove, a sink, a tub, a boiler, a table, a few wooden chairs. There is no window, just a balcony door to let light into the room" (Sp:8). The tub is in the "corner of the kitchen" (Sp:11). Building on the screenplay, Daldry's film The Reader, shows a young Michael (actor David Kross) ascending Hanna's noisy, grubby stairwell. Importantly the camera is positioned at the back of Michael, so that the viewer "enters" Hanna's room behind him, so to speak, gaining Michael's perspective on Hanna's environment. Michael's entry is deliberately slow. Once inside, he carefully inspects his environment with a nonplussed expression. The first thing in view is Hanna's bathtub, with a washing line strung from the water heater to the opposite wall. Behind Michael hang a few basic cooking utensils above a small stove. The walls are dirty, but Hanna is cleanly and neatly dressed, and she talks to Michael as she methodically irons her clothes.

Thus, in the first twelve pages of the novel and in the opening stages of the film, we are presented with plenty of information about Hanna's socio-economic situation. She lives in a working-class area of West Germany, but she dresses neatly and tries to keep "clean" despite her "shabby" surroundings. This is meant to elicit sympathy for the character of Hanna, the type which does not devolve into pity. Her situation simultaneously calls forth sympathy and admiration--for the fact that she lives respectably, without evident misery. The centrality of the bathtub (and the frequency with which Hanna or Michael use the tub in the film) attests not only to her concern with cleanliness, but also hints at the act of bodily cleansing as a morally significant symbol. Eventually, Hanna mysteriously vacates this apartment completely.

There are two other descriptions of Hanna's subsequent living environs in the novel and film. The first of these occurs just before the adult Michael learns of Hanna's suicide in prison, where she was serving a life sentence. Michael fulfils the duty of finding Hanna accommodation and employment ahead of her imminent discharge from prison for good behaviour. The screenplay and film make more of this scene than does the novel; the latter only has Michael furnishing Hanna's apartment with a combination of newly bought budget items ("from IKEA") and "old" furniture (TR:201). He does this "with unnatural haste" (TR:201). On the other hand, the screenplay has Michael finding Hanna "a nice place. Quite small but nice" (Sp:97). The screenplay also describes Michael preparing Hannah's room: "The room is simple, a bedroom to one side, a bathroom to the other. It is all furnished with simple functional furniture ... Michael hangs a picture over the desk--a landscape, reminiscent of where they once went cycling. The job is done. He looks around, grimly content (Sp:100)." In the film, Michael performs these actions with deliberation, not "unnatural haste," as in the novel. In the film, her apartment is small but light-filled, and carefully painted and decorated. It is the mirror image of her Banhofstrasse apartment, in terms of simplicity, but without signs of degradation. Hanna never lives in this apartment of course, but it promises to be a reward for her former poverty and frugality.

After Hanna commits suicide in prison, Michael is called in to hear her will read. At this point we learn that Hanna lived in such frugal circumstances in Banhofstrasse because she was saving her income to recompense the two survivors of the church fire. Her savings amount to 700 marks in cash, with additional money in the bank, which Michael is to deliver to one of those survivors--a character simply called "the daughter" [die Tochter] in the novel, and "Ilana" in the film. The second description of Hanna's living environs occurs when Michael goes to her cell on this occasion. In the novel the female prison warden shows Michael how Hanna lived in her cell, with the utmost simplicity ("bed, closet, table, chair, a shelf on the wall over the table, a sink and toilet in the corner behind the door" TR:204).

But this prison life is invested with a curious moral valence, and the warden tells Michael that Hanna learnt to read, and quickly fastened onto books by "Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery--the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hannah Arendt's report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature on the camps" (TR:205). Indeed, "for years and years [Hanna] lived here the way you would live in a convent. As if she had moved here of her own accord and voluntarily subjected herself to our system, as if the rather monotonous work was a sort of meditation (TR:207)." Hanna was respected by other prisoners and had "authority" to solve problems and give advice (TR:207).

Hanna's frugality earlier in life assumes a complex religious dimension in prison, where she is described as having lived a cenobitic existence, respected as a sage. The monastic "cell" merges with the "prison cell," and the simplistic poverty of the environment carries a virtuous signification. Suspending our disbelief, we are to admire the fact that Hanna mastered the thought of the Holocaust "classics," particularly such different thinkers as Wiesel and Arendt. The problematic features of this scene are evident in how the descriptions of Hanna's "voluntary" poverty are infused with a tale of religious redemption. The film, on the other hand, omits the religious jargon and simply portrays a distressed Michael as he sits in Hanna's small, simple cell and listens to the will. This could be due to Hare's stated purpose to avoid extending "redemption" to the perpetrator characters (Sp:vii). But either way, Hanna remains a character painted in sympathetic shades, either through her religiosity (novel) or her tragic end (film).

Living Environs II: The Daughter/Ilana

Ilana Mather is encountered in two scenes in the novel and film. The first is when she appears as a witness in a Mannheim court at Hanna's trial together with her mother--the only other survivor of the fire, who is simply called "the mother" [die Mutter] in the novel, and "Rose" in the film. In contrast to Hanna, who has consistently been associated with the seme "poverty," "the daughter" and "the mother" are associated with the polar seme "wealth." In the novel Ilana is present at court without her mother, and sits with the general audience, from whence arises her outburst (TR:116). However, in the film, both Ilana and Rose are present, and both act as witnesses in the trial. In the film, both mother and daughter are dressed in tailored outfits, and Ilana wears a pearl-necklace, her hair styled. She has written a book about her survival, which, like her character, is unnamed in the novel, but which in the screenplay and film is given the contrived title, "Mother and Daughter: A Story of Survival." This book is described as "an American publication" and it provides evidence for the trial (TR:106; Sp:59).

On other occasions in the novel and film "America" functions to code excessive wealth and the oppressive occupation of post-war Germany (TR:53; DV:53; Sp:36: "they have everything ... mankind could ever dream of"). In the novel, Michael describes reading "the daughter's" book later in life and finding it untrustworthy. The English language created "distance" for Michael, and he found he could not "identify" with the survivors, who were not "sympathetic" enough (TR:118-119; DV:114115). Nor could he relate to the uniformed guards--their faces and shapes were not "clear enough," and Michael just felt "numb" (TR:119; DV:115). As a budding lawyer, Michael also casts doubt on the relevance of this book as evidence in the trial (TR:113). Whether Michael himself is a reliable "character-narrator" (compare Rimmon-Kenan 2002:101), is a point worth considering, but there is no doubt that the reader/viewer is set up to perceive a confluence between America/the Anglophone world, excessive wealth, untrustworthiness and oppression. This is important to note, since the next description of Ilana occurs in her New York home, and signals her own superfluous affluence. In that scene, moreover, her Jewishness is the character trait most insistently brought to the foreground.

Ilana's abode is given extensive treatment in the novel, the screenplay and the film. In the penultimate scene of the story, Michael visits Ilana to undertake the task Hanna has posthumously entrusted him. In a sense, this is the climax of the story, taking 13 minutes in the film. It also takes up all of chapter eleven in the novel. In it, the adult Michael uses the occasion of a business meeting in Boston to visit Ilana. He brings her "a bank check plus the tea tin with the cash" (TR:210; DV:199). Janeway's translation reads, "The daughter lived in New York on a street near Central Park. The street was lined on both sides with old row houses of dark sandstone, with stoops of the same sandstone leading up to the front door on the first floor" ("die Tochter lebte in New York in einer kleinen StraBe in der Nahe des Central Park. Die StraBe war beidseitig von alten Reihenhausern aus dunklem Sadnstein gesaumt, bei denen Treppen aus demselben dunkeln Sandstein in den ersten Stock fuhrten;"TR:210; DV:200). For Michael, "this created an effect of severity--house after house with almost identical facades, stoop after stoop, trees only recently planted at regular intervals along the sidewalk, with a few yellowing leaves on thin twigs" (TR:211; DV:200).

This impression is not described in the screenplay. The cues for the scene are "Ext[erior]. Bridge. Manhattan. Day" (Sp:102). Michael rides a cab into Manhattan, and there is a "view of the familiar skyline." The next scene is cued, "Ext. Fifth Avenue. Day" (Sp:102). The reference to "Fifth Avenue" is absent in the novel; the screenplay expands upon the general reference to "Central Park" by naming the most expensive real estate in downtown Manhattan. Michael's cab "draws up outside an expensive apartment block. Michael gets out and goes in, the Manhattan skyline opening up behind him" (Sp:102). The screenplay and film expand upon the already named references to wealth in the novel.

This amplification continues when the scene shifts to the interior of Ilana's condominium. In the novel, "the daughter" appears and serves "tea by large windows looking out on the vest-pocket backyard gardens, some green and colorful and some merely collections of trash" (TR:211-212; DV:200). In the screenplay and film, references to anything that would compromise Ilana's total affluence is excluded, such as "collections of trash," or "vest-pocket gardens." Indeed, additional details suggesting her high degree of wealth are introduced. The screenplay describes the interior of Ilana's apartment as, "a superbly appointed space full of great and expensive art." It continues, "Michael has taken his coat off. Ilana Mather appears, elegant, well dressed--on the surface, the spirit of prosperous New York. She is now in her early fifties."

The film interprets these directions with liberality. The camera views Michael front-on as he walks into a spacious and well-decorated hallway. Michael is on the left of the screen; a small Hispanic woman is on the right and takes his coat with a lowered gaze. The maid wears a neat uniform with white cuffs, a broad white collar, and a white waist apron with a patterned border. Together, Michael and the maid walk towards the camera along a red rug with an Oriental design. Behind the characters is an elaborate lobby with a grand mirror in centre view, reflecting the white light of a chandelier. A table draped with ivory-coloured fabric holds a flowerpot with at least a dozen white lilies. The wallpaper is immaculately clean with a classically styled print in blue and cream.

The maid then moves off the scene and Michael turns a corner with the camera repositioned at the back of his head. The viewer enters a spacious living area "with" Michael, a technique recalling his first entry to Hanna's Banhofstrasse dwelling, and evoking a socioeconomic comparison between Hanna and Ilana. The first object in view is a large silver menorah (a nine-branched Hanukkiah) on display, together with other silver objects, atop a teak-coloured timber sideboard against the back wall. Michael slowly glances around the apartment, looking at the adjacent wall where another large artwork hangs, amazement clearly displayed upon his face. When Michael is almost to the centre of the living room the viewer glimpses another open hallway to his right. Inside this room is a low chandelier; several large vases with flowers are placed on the floor. At this point Ilana comes out of the room down the hall and greets Michael in the living room. The camera faces Ilana: she is well-dressed in a loose white blouse, a grey straight skirt with black lining, pointed black shoes, and gold jewellery aplenty. The scene opens up more to the right, with the viewer now able to see a large, ornate dresser with a marble top displaying a Grecian bust. All the while the large, silver Hanukkiah is in view; Michael has not obscured it in his movement across the room.

In the novel, the next scene begins with Ilana and Michael sitting down to talk. Michael describes Ilana's tone as "neither friendly nor unfriendly" but "absolutely matter-of-fact" [Sachlichkeit]; indeed, "everything about her was matter-of-fact: her manner, her gestures, her dress. Her face was oddly ageless, the way faces look after being lifted. But perhaps it had set because of her early sufferings" (TR:212; DV:200-201). One of the more curious aspects of this novelistic scene is the characterisation of Ilana as something of a "blank slate." Like the facade of her residence, she is monotonal--neither this nor that, just matter-of-fact. Even her face conveys no distinct expression, but is rendered frozen and ageless, perhaps, figures Michael, as a result of being "lifted!" The seme "wealth" that attaches to Ilana is connected to her ability to afford cosmetic surgery.

The novel continues with Michael telling Ilana about Hanna and her will. He offers Ilana the "tea tin" and the bank check, and then tells her of Hanna's moral revolution in prison; at this, Ilana rises and walks about the room with long strides, shaking her head (TR:214; DV:202). She simply asks Michael one question, "How much money is it?" Michael shows her the check; Ilana looks at it and then puts it on the table. She picks up the tea-tin, which fascinates her (den Blick fest darauf gerichtet; DV:202; TR:214). The reason is that when she was a little girl, she tells Michael, she had a "tea tin for my treasures. Not like this . I brought it with me to the camp, but then one day it was stolen from me." Michael asks her what she kept in it. "What you'd expect," she replies, "a piece of hair from our poodle. Tickets to the operas my father took me to ... the tin wasn't stolen for what was in it. The tin itself, and what could be done with it, were worth a lot in the camp" (TR:214; DV:202-203). Ilana's question, ("How much money?") appears out of place, since she had previously refused to accept the money--at least in her body language. Her question thus implies that she might reconsider Michael's offer if the amount of money is substantial enough. Yet we know of Ilana's wealth and that Hanna's donation will not amount to gain for Ilana. Thus, her question appears to be a reconsideration arising, we assume, from avarice. This impression is partially checked by Ilana's subsequent lengthy reminiscence on the deeper value of her childhood "tea tin," symbolising the happy memories of her childhood.

Although amplifying the references to Ilana's visible wealth, the screenplay and film humanise Ilana. She is dignified as a character by not asking Michael the question, "How much money?" She simply lifts the lid of the tea tin and glimpses at the bank check (Sp:106-107). In the film, rather than a blank "matter-of-factness," and a cosmetically "frozen" face, Ilana displays a range of more serious emotions. She cries as she indignantly says to Michael, "Start being honest with me" when he prevaricates about his reason for being there. The camera gives her a decidedly lengthy close-up when Ilana protests to Michael that the camps were not institutions for catharsis: "Nothing good comes out of the camps." This "message" of Ilana's is not present in the novel, and appears slightly out of place in the film scene. In fact, it appears to be lifted straight from the pages of Ruth Kluger's memoir, Still Alive (2001:65), and as such, its pedagogic purpose remains unclear. All the same, it lends seriousness to Ilana where the novel frequently reveals her frivolity, as we shall see.

The scene then shifts into a discussion between Ilana and Michael about what ought to be done with Hanna's money. In the novel, Ilana warns Michael that it cannot have anything to do with the Holocaust, as this would appear to be a form of "absolution" to her, and "that is something I neither wish nor care to grant" ("die ich weder erteilen kann noch wilf TR:214; DV:203). The screenplay and film repeat this statement (Sp:107). In the novel Michael suggests that Ilana use it "for illiterates who want to learn to read and write," saying, "there must be nonprofit organizations ... you could give the money to" (TR:214; DV:203). After a moment he adds, "Are there corresponding Jewish organizations?" to which Ilana replies, "You can depend on it, if there are organizations for something, then there are Jewish organizations for it. Illiteracy, it has to be admitted, is hardly a Jewish problem" (TR:215; DV:203). This scene is repeated literally in the screenplay and film. After Ilana's last statement ("Illiteracy ... is hardly a Jewish problem") the screenplay adds, "There is a shadow of a smile." Then Ilana says, "Why don't you find out? Send them the money" (Sp:107-108).

As their conversation comes to a close in the novel, Ilana laughs, picks up the tea tin again and says, "I'll keep the tin" (TR:215; DV:204). In the screenplay, Ilana's frivolity is reduced: she "smiles lightly. She then says, 'I'll keep the tin'" (Sp:108). The screenplay and film add another scene that is not present in the novel. Michael is walking away, down the street, and Ilana stands at her window, watching him leave. Then she goes to her bedroom. On the dressing table is a framed photo of "Ilana with her mother in Germany before the war." Ilana "sets the tin down beside the photo" (Sp:108). In the film, Ilana sits at her dresser, and places the tea-tin near a black-and-white photo. The camera lingers upon this photo, which portrays a family of seven (not just mother and daughter) sitting together in an outdoor setting. Ilana then contentedly walks away into another room.


From a series of lectures published in 2009, we know that Schlink's intention when writing Der Vorleser was to depict a female SS guard in a sympathetic light. Schlink acknowledged that he had done something controversial in this regard, and accepted that his work had received a lot of criticism for it (Schlink 2009:127). Schlink explained his motives along the lines of the moral complexity of the world where criminal activity has a "human face" (2009:127). Schlink wanted his heroine, Hanna, to also have a human face; he wanted to present an "atypical character" (2009:125) because "the atypical is also part of the truth, as long as it is presented and explained for what it is: atypical" (2009:132). Against the "atypical," Schlink posits the "stereotypical," which "distorts the truth" because it has no realistic representation (2009:125). But at the same time, for Schlink, "truth" is not equated with realism, neither is the goal of fiction to present "facts," but "truths" (2009:118-119). Somewhat contradictorily, Schlink connects his thinking with the Holocaust by saying that "Germans were perpetrators and also victims ... Jews suffered, but were also involved" (2009:131). This statement is presented not as a "truth" but as a "fact," and the suggestion appears to be that while typically, Jews suffered, atypically, they were "involved" (the Judenrat?), and while typically, Germans were perpetrators, atypically, they were "victims."

For Schlink, Hanna seems to be one such "victim"--not only a victim of circumstance (illiteracy, lack of education), but also a victim of wartime dislocation, since she is presented living in devastated Kassel after the war (TR:97) and moving routinely ever since. Schlink's aforementioned statement about the equivalence of Germans and Jews during the war (both groups being characterised by "typicalities" and "atypicalities") is disturbing to say the least. This is not only because Schlink elides the fact that, historically, Germans were perpetrators considerably more than they were victims, and Jews suffered considerably more than they were involved, but because his focus on atypicality does lead him into a "distortion" of truth by means of literary stereotyping. In order to present Hanna sympathetically, Schlink creates a heroine beset by material poverty, while Hanna's surviving victim-turned-victor (Ilana) is presented as excessively wealthy. Hanna, the perpetrator has a "human face," as Schlink wanted--and as the narrator Michael, seemed to have wanted to find in Ilana's American publication, but could not (TR:118-119; DV:114-115) --while Ilana's face is literally "frozen" and "matter-of-fact" in the penultimate scene of the novel. Ilana, in other words is a "flat" character. Her "typical" New York, "Jewish" wealth is right within the bounds of stereotyping. Not only is the "atypical" not presented "for what it is" (as per Schlink 2009:132), but the stereotypical is presented as if it were natural.

Americans and their consumerism, gratuitous wealth, and oppressive occupying force are cued negatively in the novel, and in different ways in the screenplay and film. Ilana and her mother are mentioned as being "American" in court, and Ilana, as the author of the memoir that provides evidence against Hanna, is obviously literate. Ilana's literacy is thus subtly portrayed as playing a part in Hanna's demise (compare Alison 2006:163-177). Ilana's "shadow of a smile" in the final scene analysed above, when she mentions that "illiteracy is hardly a Jewish problem" points not only in the same direction, but groups all Jews together as literate by definition, and therefore, as powerful, as morally free agents who would not need to make the kind of decisions Hanna did make. Barthes's concepts of "myth" and "doxa" are relevant here: Jewish literacy is made to look "natural," although it is a construct. We do not forget that Ilana is Jewish, or that she is literate: the large, nine-branched Hanukkiah in view at her apartment in the film is supposed to be an indication of her religious observance --and perhaps her ostentation.

The novel's connection between illiteracy and shame has already received criticism in the literature (Niven 2003:382) because it appears to imply that Hanna's illiteracy exonerates her guilt (Donahue 2001:60-81; Johnson and Finlay 2001:195-214). More pointedly, Cynthia Ozick noted Schlink's presentation of Hanna as "an anomalous case of illiteracy" because of her shame (Ozick 1999:27, cited in Worthington 2011:207, emphasis added). The implication is, Ozick stated, that Nazi perpetrators were drawn from "a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur' (Ozick 1999:207; emphasis added). This accords with Schlink's point about Hanna's atypicality, and with his suggestion, made elsewhere, that Hanna's illiteracy was symbolic of Germany's once-sturdy moral compass, lost during the war (Hart 1999:64, cited in Hall 2013:10). This potentially awakens a gross antisemitic stereotype, particularly if Schlink's "symbolic" reading is adopted, because Germany's Nazi past would appear to be an abnormal "blip" on an otherwise untainted map, whereas "Jewish literacy/wealth" would function as a symbolic constant, removing Jews from some kind of arbitrary moral bind that supposedly gripped an impoverished substratum of the German population during the Holocaust.

The concept of Germany as a victim of wartime aggression in national memorial culture has been much discussed. Sometimes the concept has been used to unduly exculpate "ordinary Germans" from their role in, or indifference to, the Holocaust (Bartov 2000:29-40; Legge 2012:229-260). The immediate, post-war tendency to blend "the experiences of victims, survivors, bystanders, accomplices and perpetrators" occurred across the social and intellectual spectrums (Krondorfer 2004:69; compare Scherzberg 2001). Schlink's comments about atypicality and truth in fiction, related above, come very close to this way of thinking, and indicate that this agenda is present in the text itself. The Reader has also been interpreted as an exploration of Germans' guilt facing the "second generation" after the Holocaust (Mueller 2007:511-529). Michael Berg stands as the central character in this regard, who finds he loves a woman a generation older than him, who committed heinous crimes of which he was unaware, and with which he must come to terms.

This returns us to Hirsch's questions introduced at the start of this essay, about remembering and representing the Holocaust amidst the tension of becoming "implicated in the aftermath of crimes we did not ourselves commit" (Hirsch 2012:1). This problem is perhaps acute in an unparalleled way for second and third-generations of the perpetrator society, Germans who themselves did not commit the crimes of the Holocaust but must live and make sense of the fact that their immediate ancestors surely did--whether through direct involvement in the genocide, or indifference to the Jewish plight.

In summary, this essay has shown how the motif of "poverty/wealth" operates as part of The Reader's impulse to encourage sympathy with the character of Hanna, through the technique of polarised characterisation. This is done not only by providing great detail into how Hanna lived, but by depicting the only surviving Jewish character in the story by the end of the novel as extremely wealthy. The characteristics "wealth," "Jewish" and "literacy" cohere in the story, while the correlative characteristics "poverty," "non-Jewish/Nazi" and "illiteracy" also cohere.

Moreover, Ilana's life finds some closure--while Hanna's ends in suicide. The provocative question posed by this schema appears to be: "Who has really suffered in this story?" The dual effect--if not the intention --is to deny on the one hand, legitimate "victim" status to Jews--who are all literate and/or wealthy, the text would have us believe--and to direct us to view Hanna's real shame as her lack of education and opportunity. This essay has also argued for the importance of examining such a result in light of contemporary debates about how to ethically represent the Holocaust, without "appropriating" it, as Hirsch would say, and without dishonouring the victims and survivors by reproducing the antisemitism that spurred it in the first place.


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Author:Sheridan, Ruth
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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