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April 14, 2009

Fucking Nazis

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My Heart is Mine Alone/Mein Herz - Niemandem!
Helma Sanders-Brahms - 1997
Facets Region 1 DVD

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The Reader
Stephen Daldry - 2008
The Weinstein Company Region 1 DVD

Blaise Pascal's observation that the heart has its own reasons has become something of a cliche. Still, one can see the existence of relationships that from the outside make little sense. Helma Sanders-Brahms' film doesn't attempt to explain the relationship between Gottfried Benn and Else Lasker-Schuler. What is presented is almost an expressionist collage of conventional biographical re-enactment, stylized staging, and documentary. There is probably some dispute as to the nature of the relationship maintained by Benn and Lasker-Schuler. Sanders-Brahms might be said to be more interested in emotional, rather than factual truths.

Some might be pressed to imagine that mutual admiration between poets could transcend political differences, touched on in the film, as well as a significant difference in age, which the film does not mention. (It might be assumed that German audiences would be aware of the age difference between Lena Stolze and Cornelius Obonya.) Neither Stolze nor Obonya age much past their initial meeting in the film, perhaps signifying how they would always see each other. What would raise eyebrows is that Lasker-Schuler was open in her life and work concerning her Jewish identity, while Benn was a Nazi until he was pushed out in the late Thirties.

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Sanders-Brahms flirts with the conventional biographical film, such as a scene where Lasker-Schuler tells Marc Chagall that he will be one of the most famous artists of the Twentieth Century. Where the film breaks with convention is in the form of dialogues between Benn and Lasker-Schuler, his poetry as a reply to her verse. Lasker-Schuler could be seen as the prototype of the performance artist, in her "Oriental" costumes. Benn later was awarded the Georg Buchner prize for his writings, which complimented his life as both a medical doctor and man of letters. Lasker-Brahms is presented as a kind of prophet who foresaw the folly of Germany's entry into both world wars, while Benn is seen as a well-meaning cad whose idealism blinded him to certain realities.

My Heart is Mine Alone may not explain fully the reasons for the passion between Benn and Lasker-Schuler, or why someone both bright and consistently rebellious as Gottfried Benn would embrace the Nazi philosophy, but on its own terms, it is a more truthful film than The Reader. By contrast, Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare would want us to believe that Kate Winslet's character, Hanna Schmitz, became a Nazi because, as an illiterate, she really didn't know any better, and that she deserved a modicum of sympathy because her inability to admit to her illiteracy caused her to take a fall more severe than her fellow concentration camp guards. Even without the revelation of her background, there is no reason for teenage Michael Berg to even have an affair with the then thirty-six year old Hanna Schmitz other than he's young and she's Kate Winslet. The Reader is a more realistic film employing the techniques of traditional filmmaking, yet everything about it seems false and artificial compared to Helma Sanders-Brahms' film.

What may be more offensive is that The Reader only pretends to be raising questions about law, morality, and German guilt. The Reader is not about moral dilemmas but about creating audience sympathy for Berg and Schmitz because they have to deal with the serious questions. One might argue that Hanna Schmitz never really understands the implications of her actions and that suicide is as much of an escape as literature. I'm surprised no one retitled the film "Schindler's Booklist". Even Michael Berg's choice to not reveal Hanna Schmitz' illiteracy when it could make the difference in her trial strikes me as being dishonest at the very least from a legal standpoint, more so from a law student.

One of the questionable choices made by Daldry and Hare is to not include, as in the novel, that the newly literate Hanna not only learns to read the books read to her by young Michael, but also reads works by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Within that context is conveyed a sense that Hanna Schmitz might have had a clearer understanding of her actions beyond following orders. The main difference between My Heart is Mine Alone and The Reader is that in Sander-Brahms' film, her lovers face the consequences of their actions, while Stephen Daldry would have you believe that being physically attractive is reason enough to excuse the most dubious legal or moral actions.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 14, 2009 05:30 PM