The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is 'The Reader' the worst Holocaust film ever made?

February 11, 2009 | 12:16 pm

So many overwrought, shamelessly sentimental and earnest Holocaust films have populated the theaters in recent years that it would really be a tough call to pick the worst one ever, but noted author and essayist Ron Rosenbaum has weighed in with his choice -- "The Reader." Rosenbaum isn't just an armchair Holocaust observer, having written "Explaining Hitler," a fascinating and expansive look at Hitler's unusual origins and enigmatic psyche. Writing in Slate, Rosenbaum takes a harsh stand against any votes for "The Reader" as best picture or Kate Winslet as best actress. As he puts it:

"This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution. The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it's a 'Holocaust film,' it must be worthy of approbation, end of story."

Rosenbaum was especially appalled by a recent N.Y. Times report on the state of the Oscar race that ran a glamorous photo of Winslet above the headline "Films About Personal Triumphs Resonate with Viewers During Awards Season." WinsletNoting that Winslet, as a death-camp guard in the film, was personally involved with the gruesome deaths of 300 Jewish women locked in a burning church, Rosenbaum asks: "What, exactly, was the Kate Winslet character's 'personal triumph'? That ... she taught herself to read? What a heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer!"

I'm not so sure the film's moral lessons are quite as black and white as Rosenbaum paints them. But he does burrow into the film's greatest thematic weakness -- that it uses its 1950s-era story of the sexual intimacy between Winslet and a young German teenager to create audience empathy for a loyal tool in the Nazi campaign to exterminate the German Jews.

The best part of the piece details one of those classic, carefully orchestrated Oscar taste-maker screenings, where Harvey Weinstein stops by to say hello and "Reader" filmmaker Stephen Daldry takes polite questions from the audience after showing the film. Like a skunk at a garden party, Rosenbaum brought along a friend who was so outraged by the film that he disrupted the decorous atmosphere, inspiring "shocked gasps" when he tells Daldry that the nudity was a manipulative tool used to create intimacy with an unrepentant mass murderer. Rosenbaum doesn't recount Daldry's response, though he notes that he received an outraged phone call the next morning from the film's chief publicist, upbraiding him for bringing a rude "interloper" to the screening and reminding him how important it was, in these tough economic times, for films like "The Reader" to succeed. Incredulous, Rosenbaum responds: "You mean, you're saying I could be the death of Hollywood?" If only!





Photo of Kate Winslet in "The Reader" by Melinda Sue Gordon / The Weinstein Co.