Michael is 15, Hanna (Kate Winslet in her Oscar-winning role) is 30-something. It’s Germany in 1958, and they’re having a torrid affair. But she wants him to read to her before they have sex. Then she leaves him. Years later (I think about 1965, but the movie jumps around a lot and can get confusing) he is in law school and learns she is on trial with five other women as an SS concentration camp guard. She, and the others, did things like select prisoners to be sent on to Auschwitz, but that’s only the least of it. After all, if she didn’t select them, somebody else would. But while marching 300 women to a new camp, the guards locked them in a church which was later set afire by Allied bombing. And they didn’t let them out. All died but a mother and her daughter, and now they have written a book about it, which has resulted in this trial. The other five deny responsibility, but Hanna admits it all. She got into the guard business because she needed a job, she says. She is painfully honest about it. And when it comes time to determine the authorship of a damning memo, she assumes responsibility, though it could not have been her, because she has a secret she is ashamed to reveal …
… I don’t think I’ll issue a spoiler alert (though you may take this demurral as an alert, if you choose), because I think the nature of her secret is pretty obvious. She’s illiterate. She can’t read or write. But she doesn’t deny the testimony of the other Nazi bitches, and thus ends up with a life sentence, while the other five get four years.
This is a very difficult movie. For one thing, your mind may boggle at the idea that she would admit to watching 300 women burn to death—her rationale being that if they had released them, the prisoners would have escaped—and yet won’t admit the one thing that would save her and expose the other five as the lying whores that they are. And yet I bought it, in the end. The human mind is not logical, and the shame of illiteracy in an educated society like Germany is intense. But it’s ironic that she would admit to all her sins as a guard but lie about that.
The question of lingering German guilt is a complex one, to me. Should the war criminals have been punished? No question, especially the SS. But as someone points out, over eight thousand people worked at Auschwitz. How many do you think got punished? Only a handful, and often for reasons like that shown here: They happened to have been exposed by a best-selling book, and their trial was more a matter of public relations than any quest for justice. Sheer bad luck. I also couldn’t help looking at the panel of elderly judges and wondering, What did you do in the war, daddy? Do you have the right to sit in judgement of these women? One can even make a damn good case against the “ordinary German” who lived next door to the camps and somehow never noticed the odor of burning flesh or the fact that people went in, but no one ever came out. “Ve didn’t know vat vas happening!” What’s the German word for bullshit?
It’s easy to condemn them, and they should be condemned … but what do you think you would have done in the war, daddy-o? If you had been a German? Don’t be too quick to answer if you’ve never been tested. I haven’t been tested, and all I can say is that I hope, I deeply hope, that I would stand up, that I wouldn’t go along. But I’m far from sure that I would. It is so easy to go along, to close your eyes …even when not much is at stake, for you. How much harder if you know that standing up will get you a prison sentence, and maybe a firing squad? Like I say, I’m far from sure …
This movie has been criticized for going easy on Hanna, for showing her to be a sort of “stand-up” gal. There’s some truth in that. I mean, she’s played by Kate Winslet, for crying out loud! It’s not easy to hate her … and I don’t, and I don’t think I would even if she were played by an actress with a harder edge. Some also objected that we only hear the horror stories, we never see the camps, we never see the burning church. I reject that notion. Come on, we’ve seen the camps, we’ve seen all manner of Nazi atrocities, and while I’m not saying we shouldn’t see more—never forget!—this movie was about the law, about justice. Judgement at Nuremberg did the same thing, and I don’t think there were too many objections.
But what does this movie say, in the end, about justice, and about forgiveness? Michael as an older man (now played by Ralph Fiennes) goes to see one of the women who escaped the burning church to tell her Hanna is dead, and to deliver some money that Hanna may or may not have seen as some degree of expiation. The woman—played wonderfully by Lena Olin—utterly rejects it. There can be no expiation, there can be no forgiveness. I agree. Some say that John Demjanjuk, who is now 89, is being somehow hounded. My only concern is if he is who they say he is (and I think he is, the evidence seem pretty damning). If he is, then I don’t care if he’s 189. Try him. Lock his Nazi ass up for whatever pitiful years he has left.
Final word: I suspect this movie has more nudity in it than any other I’ve seen this side of porn. Hanna and the boy spend most of their time together naked, and making love, and it’s fairly explicit. But I never felt the sex was being exploited in any way. Actually, it was treated in a fairly offhand manner, which is a good thing, I believe. Odd bit of trivia: David Kross, who plays the young Michael, was only 17 when he was cast. They filmed all his non-nude scenes, and had to wait until he turned 18 before they could do the other ones!