Finished watching “The Reader” the other day. Had to watch it, what with the reviews Kate had got for it. Came back with mixed feelings. It starts with an older Kate, in her 30s, having a secret affair with a teenage boy almost half her age in post-War Germany. Passionate and intense, it almost consumes the young boy. Kate enjoys the boy reading to her before they make love. He reads her a number of stories, ranging from Iliad to Huckleberry Finn. But hot and demanding as it is, the affair ends when Kate suddenly disappears without an explanation. Maybe she feels that the boy is developing affections for someone else, maybe she feels that it is getting too intense and can destroy him or maybe just that her secrets and her past will ultimately come out and destroy her, maybe by her affair or her promotion.
The kid grows up and becomes a law student. One day when taken to court by their teacher to observe a trial of some Nazi prison guards, he is shocked to see Kate as one of the defendants. She is accused of being a prison guard at a concentration camp and with 4 other female guards, of letting over 300 Jewish females and children burn to death. While the other females deny the charges, Kate accepts them in an almost stoic fashion. She admits to choosing prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz and even standing by while so many people burned to death when, during the Death Marches, they were locked in a church while they were being bombed by the Allies. Her admission of guilt shows her simplicity, and, to me, maybe an inability to understand the enormity of her actions in their entirety. The other females then gang up and accuse Kate of being their leader and of putting the whole incident on report. This is the first time that Kate is flustered and denies the charge. But on being pressed and asked for a handwriting sample, she changes her statement and admits to being the leader too. The boy realizes suddenly why Kate is admitting to guilt that was not hers. She is illiterate. Now he realizes why she wanted him to read to her and why she let him order food at the restaurant. He is caught in a dilemma about whether to come out with this knowledge and inform the court of this so as to reduce her sentence or let it remain secret because she wants to keep it so.
He finds himself unable to deal with this and remains quiet. Kate is sentenced to life. During this period the boy, now grown up, starts sending Kate audio tapes he records himself of various stories and books. Regularly, he sends her tapes of one book after another, and in her desire to communicate with him, Kate picks out the same books from the prison library and slowly and painstakingly, learns to write. Small notes she begins with, a request for more romances or a comment on a character…but Fiennes (the grown up kid) doesn’t answer to any. Even when she pleads him to write a line. Finally in her old age, Kate is about to get released. The prison contacts Fiennes as he is the only contact they have for her. He reluctantly agrees to it. On meeting her, his old feelings about Nazis come out and he asks her if she’s learnt anything after staying in prison all this while. She replies that all she’s learnt is how to write. But seeing the expression on Fiennes face, she grows quiet. She goes into her cell and hangs herself. Fiennes is shocked and heartbroken. Kate leaves behind all her money to the daughter of the only survivor from the church fire, who had recognized all of them at the trial. Fiennes meets her in the US and give her the money that Kate had kept in an old tea tin. While unable and unwilling to forget Kate for her actions, the woman keeps the tea tin as a memento of a similar one that she had had as a kid. They decide to open an education trust with the money. In the end they both, German and Jew come away from it with a little bit of solace, a little balm on wounds that refuse to heal…
Kate’s done an incredible job as always. Found it a little hard to understand Kate’s motivation for becoming a Nazi or for her actions as one. The secret she tries to hide all her life and the shame it engenders in her I can understand. Her interest in books and what they hold is also understandable. A simple person in a situation much too big and complex for her is what seems plausible to me. She was no hero, just an ordinary person suddenly caught up in events that were too much for her to comprehend. The higher ideals that castigate Nazi ideas were alien to her. Sometimes I wonder if she even understood what was happening. When asked why she didn’t let the hapless women and children out of the church, she simply responds that she couldn’t let the prisoners out like that. Hard to understand but that’s how most people respond to such situations. Inflicting pain and torture is easier if you’re able to perhaps, convince yourself that you are not directly responsible for it. Maybe something like that happened with her. I don’t know. Like that student who asks why the older generation said nothing when the Final Solution was happening or why they didn’t hang themselves in shame when they found out later. Bold words indeed, but how do we as common people react when we hear of such incidents in our own countries, or perpetrated by our own police/armies? Much the same way, I’m afraid to say. Like those Indian soldiers who shot at innocent people at Jalianwala Bagh. I’ve tried hard to understand her motivation, you see! I guess, looking back at this reasoning, one that I’ve come up with as I was typing this out, I don’t think mixed feelings was an accurate description of what I feel about the movie. She was a simple person, dealing with situations way out of her league, and in her death finding some expiation, maybe?
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