Tragedy of history

Hanna Schmitz in ‘The Reader’ is responsible for the death of hundreds of Jews, but why do we sympathise with her?

THOUGH her provocative portrayal of the ex-Schutzstaffel (SS) guard Hanna Schmitz in The Reader won Kate Winslet the Oscar, it is fair to assume that Academy voters also took into account her work in Revolutionary Road. All this speaks volumes about her persistence, warmth and commitment to work.

Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader (1995), on which the movie is based, tackles the problem of the inability of succeeding generations of Germans to respond to the tragedy of the Holocaust. The ideology of mass murder has a history and a context in all its perversity and evil.

Set in 1958, in the city of Heidelberg, the novel/film begins with the short and passionate affair between a 15-year-old schoolboy, Michael, and a 36-year-old tram conductress, Hanna Schmitz, who has him read to her from the classics before making love. She hides from him the fact that she cannot read or write, but he knows. The nude scenes are deeply aesthetic and coherent to the theme of dichotomy of passion and indifference. Then Hanna Schmitz disappears suddenly, only to be discovered by Michael eight years later at a war crimes trial.

Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz) and David Kross (Michael) in a still from the film.

She, along with a few others who had worked as SS guards, are held guilty of allowing Jews in their custody to die. When asked if she is the author of the report on the fire that killed the Jews, Hanna Schmitz does not deny it. Michael is confused and horrified that she regards the public exposure of her illiteracy far worse and humiliating than her involvement with the Nazi programme.

During the trial it is revealed that Hanna Schmitz had the terminally ill Jews read to her before sending them to the gas chambers. Michael conjectures that she probably wanted to make their last days bearable; or did she send them to their death so that her illiteracy remained a secret? Hanna Schmitz’s true guilt is her illiteracy, which becomes an allegory for the contemporary misunderstanding of the Holocaust. She is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A German fate

Michael is left thinking: “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.... I wanted to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both… the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate.”

It is at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp that Michael meets an old man who gives him his reasons for the complicity of those behind the Holocaust tragedy: “An executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening or attacking them. They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”

In the novel, Bernhard Schlink asks himself and the reader: “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to make the horrors an object of inquiry is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?”

The story derives its significance from the complex notions of justice and responsibility that it throws up in the court scene, a location for the conflict between ethics and duty. The public prosecutor asks Hanna Schmitz to explain why she had allowed more than 300 mothers and children to perish in the fire when the church in which the Jews were locked up had come under heavy aerial bombardment.

She replies that as a guard on duty, she could not possibly open the doors of the church to allow the prisoners to escape. She reasons that it never occurred to her to unlock the doors of the blazing church; her sense of duty prevails over any pity or sense of ethics and humanitarian rationale. Her inability to see the reasons for her persecution seems justified when seen in the light of the controversy over Hannah Arendt’s article, Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1963, Hannah Arendt’s articles for The New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in an Israeli court provoked a heated discussion among Western intellectuals, including Irving Howe and Alfred Cazin.

Both the characters, the philosopher and the heroine of The Reader, carry the same first name. It is for this reason that the movie becomes intellectually challenging, when seen in the light of Hannah Arendt’s philosophy on “the banality of evil”. Why do we sympathise with Hanna Schmitz?

Her persecution goes down well with the Jewish lobby and those who hold a traditional view of ethics and morality. But seen in terms of her sense of duty, the crime begins to take on another shade of the responsibility of action.

Within the ambit of one’s duty lies the question of behaviour according to the demands of the job in hand even if it means death for some. This is the central paradox of any discussion on the philosophical issue of ethics and duty. It is commonly held that the commitment of an evil deed must involve an evil heart or a criminal temperament.

But within Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” this is not the case. You can very well commit a culpable deed without having a streak of wickedness. Hannah Arendt argues, “It is, I think, a simple fact that people are at least as often tempted to do good and need an effort to do evil as vice versa.”

Hanna Schmitz has no pleasure in cruelty, but has acquired the faculty of shutting her mind to it. This is regimentation under a strict bureaucracy. She lacks a criminal mind, as did Eichmann. The fact that Hanna Schmitz passionately enjoys her teenage paramour reading to her from the classics and that she permits him to make love to her only after she has relished the reading shows that her reprehensible act does not come from an evil mind.

Eichmann’s involvement in the deportation of hundreds of Jews to the gas chambers does not give him any pangs of conscience; it is the result of a deep-seated desire to fulfil the demands of an assignment. Personal feelings or the sense of morality are not permitted to interfere with the sense of duty.

All his life, he had shown an acute sense of law and morality that dominated his every action. When it came to organising the deportation, he single-mindedly saw to it that the job in hand reached its conclusion. To Hannah Arendt, it was more a case of thoughtlessness than a “monstrosity”, an incapacity to “think from the point of view of others.”

In a deeply regimented totalitarian state, individualism amounts to inconsequential actions. What if one revolts? One’s removal will not mean the arrival of another rebel. It would end in a more controlled autonomy under a harsher bureaucratic system that co-opts more pliable recruits into the system. And in such a system, one confronts two kinds of people, intellectuals who have the conviction and the mind to rebel, and the others who consider themselves as “normal” and value conformism and obedience to the rules of the state.

Hannah Arendt, therefore, agrees with Immanuel Kant who “defined judgment as the faculty which always comes into play when we are confronted with particulars”. There are no rules that can be applicable to circumstances that in a particular situation appear unique. At the human level, the choices we make determine our destiny and define our ideological stance. Rules are too conventional and narrow in scope to cover the paradoxes and ironies of our existence.

In order not to reveal to the world that she is an illiterate, Hanna Schmitz refuses to admit that she is not the author of the order made out against the prisoners. This lie would cost her a lifetime in prison followed by suicide. But to the end she remains adamant that her actions were in coherence with her sense of duty. She donates her meagre wealth to the Jewish cause before dying, but nowhere is there any repentance. Justice and responsibility are after all not all that unambiguously simple concepts to deal with.

SHELLEY WALIA
Frontline

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