The Reader: Love in a Time of Nothingness

Is it just me or that Oscar-nominated movies have became downright tragic and depressing? With the exception of Slumdog Millionaire, one leaves the movie theater (or living room) feeling hardly uplifted. Well, I only have watched a few of the films, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Reader, but I have asked a few people, and they have confirmed my “theory.” And I discuss it with regards to The Reader, the film that won Kate Winslet her Best Actress plum.

At one point in The Reader, we listen in on the trial and law-classroom scenes, and we get the usual dose of how the Holocaust was a deeply horrible event; how people knew but didn’t do anything about it; how the law became the opposite of morality; how the usual moral categories did not apply to genocide; how the trial was “selective,” since more people should have been condemned; how one can’t be too hasty in one’s judgments. Hannah Schmidt retorts back to the judge questioning her, “What would you have done?”  All morality, ideals and education break down and don’t matter. This is why they have an illiterate woman as heroine. In the concentration camps, one is left with just oneself, not with the ennobling ideals of education but with one’s raw instincts of self-preservation.

“We were responsible for them!” shouts Hannah defiantly.

Anyhow, she and the others get condemned, spending the next twenty years in prison. At this point in the movie, there hasn’t been any really bright spot, but we moviegoers are wired to hope and look for redemption. Something’s gotta come out of all this, we say. And we do get a glimpse of it, as we see that Hannah learns to read through Michael’s audiotapes. (Too bad they lived before the era of audiobooks. Michael would have had an easier time; but in fairness, the tape recordings are as lucid as today’s digital stuff.)

Here, we have a sweet, simple thing that at least will come out of the sad sorry tale. After such a tragedy, we are swept past all the complications of law, moral philosophy, etc and get back to the basics: in this sense, the joy of reading!

But alas, while we see this glimmer of hope, it is snuffed out. When Michael and Hannah see each other again after almost 30 years, one expects a sweet, tearful reunion at least. But Michael acts coldly, despite the politeness and civility, and that is probably one reason why Hannah hangs herself afterwards. It is weird. Michael spends twenty years recording the tapes, testimony to her devotion to Hannah, gets an cold heart at the end and cries like a baby when she dies? It is indeed strange, but by no means inexplicable. Michael is fixated by the past, but when he finally confronts it, he doesn’t really what to say or do. Besides, after all those years, what do you say? The feelings are strong, the past is important, but what else is there to say?

In essence, nothing.

We hope to get something out of it as we look back at the Holocaust just as Michael does at Hannah, but the film tells us that we really don’t. After thirty years of playing The Reader, Michael ends up with nothing, just his unending devotion that is hardly portrayed in happy ways (Michael looks solemn and gloomy all the time) Hannah does learn to read but kills herself in the end. The Holocaust survivor’s remark captures it all.

“Nothing can come out of the Holocaust, Nothing.”

Well, there was love you might say, since we have the Michael-Hannah affair. But this is not love that lets you soar, fly and sing. It’s the nothingness of love, of how it has  a certain pointlessness and fortuity. Michael really didn’t have to do those audiotapes, Hannah didn’t really have to take care of Michael as he puked all over the street because of scarlet fever. But they did, and that’s what makes it love. It is empty, devoid of Reason. It defies explanation, just as the Holocaust does.

In this sense, it is not surprising that the movie ends as it begins. Michael wakes up and reminisces to 1958. At the end, Michael looks back again, but this time to her daughter. We simply went nowhere, and we get the feeling that the trip-down-memory-lane is not a “how-this-woman-made-me-into-who-I-am-today-let’s-thank-her” episode. Certainly, it will explain to Sofie why Michael her father had been distant all these years, but the gloomy, cloudy mood at the end hardly bodes a happy future.

Well, I suppose given the nothingness, the Holocausts we face daily, the emptiness that pervades our lives, only something as empty and gratuitous as love can be our salvation.

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