This movie is ridiculous.
Based on a stage play from the early 1980s by C P Taylor, it charts the rise of a German literature professor, John Halder, into the upper ranks of the SS.
Halder’s novel on euthanasia attracts the attention of senior Nazi officials, and he is asked to write an official document outlining the party’s policy, with the strong implication that he is being used to justify increasingly genocidal policies towards the mentally and physically ill.
This request should supposedly bring him into conflict with his best friend, a Jewish psychoanalyst, as well as with his conscience. The story as such has great potential for exploring the ethical and moral choices Germans in the Third Reich were confronted with. The problem is that we don’t get to see any of this.
The dialogue is so trite and clichéd that any scene with potential for conflict, argument or insight provokes involuntary laughter.
Halder’s friend comes out with lines such as, “Where will you get proper cheesecake from once you have got rid of all the Jews?” and breaks up his friendship with the professor with the profound statement, “I’m a Jew. You’re a Nazi. End of story.”
There is some weird magic realism going on as well. Whenever Halder seems to doubt his actions (I’m guessing here) he descends into a murky twilight world where he sees groups of people singing songs to him by the Jewish composer Gustav Mahler. It’s so badly done that when it first happens those people just seem to be singing along to the radio.
Early into the film Halder starts an affair with one of his students. His wife, whose father has been trying to convince him to join the Nazi party for some time, is unbelievably oblivious to this.
One of the first conversations between the student and Halder takes place on a park bench as Aryan children with blond braids and flowery skirts skip all around them.
There’s a Nazi rally taking place and when Halder voices some mumbling objection about joining it, his student lover cuts him down with something like, “But why are you so miserable? Look, everyone is having a good time. They make people happy. Let’s go!” Cringe.
I suppose at least the director didn’t attempt to give the Nazis German accents. They sound like British upper class twits instead.
If you have a spare couple of hours, do not go and see this movie. Rent The Reader instead or, better still, read Bernhard Schlink’s very good novel of the same title.
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