The Reader and Oedipus Rex

This is the funniest and the dumbest review I have read of The Reader

Maybe I’m lacking in moral complexity (or maybe this is a uniquely German story that translates poorly to an American context), but The Reader‘s central problem (which seems reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”) strikes me as a bogus one. If Michael can say, truthfully, that he knew nothing about his lover’s past, doesn’t that effectively absolve him of guilt?


It’s funny because the reviewer is lacking in moral complexity, and it’s dumb because this film is so not reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”.

There’s a queasy moment during the trial of Hanna Schmitz when she is being questioned about how she selected the prisoners who would go to the death camps where she asks the judge – “what would you have done?”  Of course, criminal cases don’t deal with the hypothetical, and in a trial concerning specific crimes of passion the answer to this question can easily be avoided, but in a trial that concern the actions of an individual that were representative of a society?  Well, that’s tricky.  There’s a certain tendency when this question is turned around for everybody to look at the judge at this point, a German man of a certain age, and think – “Actually, what were you doing during the war?”

And now we are getting to what the film is about.  What is it like to be a German child of World War Two?  There must have been a moment in the life of each member of Bernhard Schlink’s generation (he was born in 1944) when they realised that their parents were adults during the period when the Nazis were in power, and there must also have been moments when they realised that even if their parents weren’t in the Gestapo they probably also weren’t plotting the overthrow of Hitler and smuggling Jews across the border.  But then, of course, they are your parents, the people who love you most in the world, and whom you love in return.

This is the problem of the movie. It is not a movie about the Jews in World War Two; it is a movie about the Germans after World War Two.  What do you do when you can never absolve the ones you are compelled to love, of crimes of the most abhorrent kind?  From the moment of horrified revelation in the courtroom Michael’s life is torn apart.


At the moment at school I am doing a one man performance of Oedipus Rex for my Year 12 Classics class.  We take a section each day and I “perform” it to them.  They are hooked.  It is such a fantastic play, so taut and filled with rising dread, so awful to watch Oedipus come to his moment of realisation and tear himself apart.

Studying Oedipus Rex with my Year 12 students has made me realise how alien aspects of Greek culture are to us.  Oedipus Rex can read like a very modern play, but if you see a production done in the original style then it is pretty clearly a different order of work much more to do with ritual, and song, and action of the Gods.  The simple fact of the actors and chorus wearing large masks makes the performance far more like witnessing a series of tableaux.

The world of the ancient Greeks is such a pitiless place.  What do we make of Oedipus’ fate nowadays?  There is really not a lot to indicate that he deserved what he got.  He was a little short tempered, perhaps a little prone to disparage the oracles, but he seems to have been a good ruler.  In fact it all seems to have happened because, well, the Gods said it would.  The cheering conclusion of the chorus is this:

All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing!

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion

Followed by disillusion.

These lines reminded me of The Reader.  Was the last time that Michael was truly happy the moment before he recognised Hanna Schmitz in the courtroom on trial for Nazi war crimes?  After that moment was anything ever really the same for him?  After that I suppose Michael was looking for something to make everything better, to take away the awkward sickness of the memory of his love.  But the world is still an ancient Greek one, and without pity.  After nearly two decades Hanna Schmitz, days from her release from prison, meets Michael again, and realising that he does not love her but in fact expects her to show remorse or say that she has learnt something while she has been in prison, snaps,

It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.

Later a Jewish survivor of Hanna’s actions says to Michael:

What are you asking for?  Forgiveness for her? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.  Nothing.


Was there a moment when the chief Te Puni or the chief Wharepouri was standing on the beach at Pito-one watching the European ships sitting on the flat waters of Port Nicholson, with the row boats bringing in more and more settlers to fill up more and more land, to demand more, to take more, was there a moment when they realised that they had made a mistake?  Was there a moment when they realised that they had agreed to a tidal wave that would sweep centuries of their beliefs and values into the sea?

Do we, so modern, believe in fate or free will when it comes to the movements of history?  Was there really any choice for the likes of Te Puni, or had fate thrown an irresistible force against the Maori?  Is there any choice for us now, or have we already created the fate that will overwhelm us?  The individual may have free will for all I know, but it seems to me that the individual also lives in a world of vast, impersonal forces and we may as well call them fate for all the chance we have of standing against them.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

7 thoughts on “The Reader and Oedipus Rex”

  1. We all know that “Nam Myoho enge Kyo” without the R means – “let’s pretend the music teacher isn’t here.”

  2. “Thanks both for posting such thoughtful comments.”
    Where’s my word of thanks for being first to comment?

  3. Hello.

    We are using Penguin Classics, translated by E.F.Watling. Yesterday I “performed” the end of the play. You could feel the recoil in the room when the class realised what Oedipus had just done to his eyes.

    You know what struck me this time reading the ending was how sad the moment is when Oedipus talks to his daughters. Man, that’s a real tear jerker.

    We are doing Antigone next.

    I know what you mean about not quite crying. That bit at the end where Michael goes to visit Ilana sort of summed it up really: “What do you want?” What does he want? Somebody to wave a magic wand I think.

    I read the book a long time ago, but my Mum is just reading it and she said that in the book Michael is a lot colder during the trial, a lot more – as you say – obviously damaged. Also that Michael’s Dad is more involved.

    I need to reread the book.

    Thanks both for posting such thoughtful comments.

  4. Good post sir. Big stuff.

    I’m going to engage on a smaller scale, and just pick up your question as to whether:

    ‘Was the last time that Michael was truly happy the moment before he recognised Hanna Schmitz in the courtroom on trial for Nazi war crimes?’

    That seems like a difference between the film and the book that I didn’t pick up on watching the film. In the book, I think it’s clear that Michael is damaged after his affair with Hanna – though it’s an open question as to whether that’s entirely due to his affair, or even really due to his affair at all. It feels like the movie didn’t fully explore that damage by skipping over to the trial in the way it did. I will keep an eye out when I rewatch it.

    Thought the book was very good, thought the movie was nearly as good – and that’s hard to do.

  5. I’m enjoying how you take two unconnected things and then make a connection.

    Several people have told me that they cried and cried during The Reader. I often cry at movies, but I didn’t quite – I think because I didn’t know who to cry for. Everyone needed someone to cry for them.

    Maybe it’s the same with Oedipus Rex. Which translation are you using? I first came across it in 6th form drama – we performed a small section from where everything is starting to fall apart – ‘Oh father’s fields double tilled’ or something. It was from a translation that I discovered later was by a poet – I’ll just check – Paul Roche. It isn’t as comprehensible as the usual Penguin version, but sounds way cooler!

  6. “The individual may have free will for all I know, but it seems to me that the individual also lives in a world of vast, impersonal forces and we may as well call them fate for all the chance we have of standing against them.”
    We must encourage people to take the middle road.
    Nam Myoho enge Kyo.

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