Friday, January 09, 2009

What Would You Have Done?

The Reader has become one of my two favorite films of the year (along with Let the Right One In). It's a simple story, but it involves a series of subtle moral choices on the part of the writer and director which are executed flawlessly. A true high-wire act of introspection.

Broadly speaking, it addresses the impenetrable moral briar patch of Germany's national guilt following the Holocaust. But rather than paint easy caricatures of good and evil, and thereby allow us to feel good about ourselves for making the correct binary choice (see Schindler's List), it chooses an archetype that was unquestionably more common at the time: a normal, everyday person who allowed terrible things to happen because they didn't choose to do otherwise.

While even this stereotype is familiar by now (it was famously addressed by Hannah Erendt as "the banality of evil" in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem), what is astounding about the picture is that it considers the subject in a complex way. A film like Schindler might make us feel better, but in doing so it lets us imagine ourselves incapable of allowing the same horrors through our own inaction. We - all of us - would be Schindlers of our own given the same circumstances, right? Unlikely. How many Germans owned munitions factories or had the means to manipulate local politics?

What is the correct moral framework with which we should address such people? Is it practical to condemn an entire nation to life imprisonment? Or execution? On the other hand, even if it isn't practical, isn't it in fact morally correct to do so?

As a minor character in the film, a student, says to his professor, "How could you let this happen? And why didn't you kill yourself when you found out?"