Warning: includes spoilers!
Rosenbaum says that The Reader “is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.”
I think that the writer of the book on which the film is based, Bernhard Schlink, did not intend to produce a piece of literature claiming that Germans were not aware of the Holocaust. Rather, I think the point was to tell the story of an ordinary German boy (David Kross as the young Michael Berg) and his love affair with a former Nazi camp guard (Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz).
I agree with Rosenbaum that most Germans must have been deaf and dumb to not realize that Hitler was on a systematic killing spree of Jews, but I think that The Reader actually shows how most Germans were content with just ignoring this unsavory fact and blindly following orders. Unfortunately, most humans will agree to blindly follow orders than think for themselves.
The film does overdramatize the fact that Hanna cannot read and write until she teaches herself to do so while in prison after being found guilty of helping other guards lock up 300 prisoners in a burning church, who subsequently die.
Hanna’s words on the stand during her trial, in which she justified her actions, struck a chord with me. She said: “We locked them in the church because we were afraid that some of them might run away if we opened the doors.”
This reminded me of the religious police in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2002 who justified keeping the gates of a burning girl’s school locked–with 800 students inside-because the female students were uncovered and it would be a sin for men to see them that way! 15 girls died in that fire.
I think the way Hanna thought, and the way the religious police thought in Saudi Arabia, are both examples of totalitarian thought, where the state or an ideology stops individuals from thinking logically or humanely. This in no way excuses Hanna or the religious policemen for what they did, but is an insight into how totalitarian movements can get their foot soldiers to toe the line all the time, even if there are disastrous and deadly results.
Hanna at the end of the movie does manage to teach herself how to read and write, but she is miserable and alone. Even after prison authorities contact an already married and divorced Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes), who has been recording books on tape and sending them to Hanna in prison, and he agrees to help Hanna find a job and a place to live when released, he does not agree with Hanna when she asks him: “Have you come back for me?”
It is clear that Michael is still horrified at Hanna’s Nazi past, which she never told him about as a boy when she was seducing him in bed. Hanna hangs herself on the day of her release, so that she does not live happily ever after with Michael in liberty.
I think that Rosenbaum and others like him are mad because The Reader is not yet another mea culpa film about the Holocaust. I think that this particular genre has been exhausted, and viewers are ready for more personal and intimate stories of people involved with the Nazis. That does not mean that viewers have forgotten, or forgiven, the Nazis for their horrific war crimes.