"The Reader," a film set against the backdrop of the Holocaust will be in the running at the Oscars this weekend. But critics are asking whether Hollywood is simply exploiting history for the sake of profit.
Kate Winslet has earned rave reviews, but not everybody is cheering
There has been no lack of award-winning attention to Stephen Daldry's film "The Reader." Actress Kate Winslet in particular is piling up awards for her role in the movie, from a BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild to a Golden Globe. The film has gotten five nominations for an Oscar this year.
Based on the international bestseller by Schlink, "The Reader" tells the story of 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) who has an affair with an older woman (Winslet) in Germany during the late 1950s.
The object of his desire is Hanna Schmitz, a tram conductor who is very secretive about her life, but who enjoys it when Michael reads to her from the great works of Western literature.
Much later, as a law student, Michael discovers that his first love was illiterate, and had worked as a Nazi concentration camp guard during the war.
Ron Rosenbaum, author of the book "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil," called it "the worst Holocaust film ever made."
In his column on the online magazine slate.com, Rosenbaum said that nominating the film for an Oscar was "stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it's a 'Holocaust film,' it must be worthy of approbation, end of story."
Exploiting mass tragedy
Of course, the Holocaust has been a setting for many famous films such as "Schindler's List," "The Pianist" or "Life is Beautiful." Coincidentally, all of which have won Oscars.
Is a Holocaust-based film enough to win the Oscar?
Yet Andrew Wallenstein, deputy editor of The Hollywood Reporter, said in a commentary on National Public Radio that some filmmakers were "exploiting mass tragedy to earn the kind of gravitas the Holocaust confers."
Indeed, in addition to "The Reader," a number of films have been released recently that have a relation to the Holocaust: "Operation Valkyrie," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" or "Defiance." According to Wallenstein, the timing is striking.
"While it would be nice to chalk up this trend to some grand artistic need to grapple with such a terrifying period of history, you have to note the timing of the release of these films," Wallenstein said. "Let's just say it: The real reason we see so many of these movies is that they're awards bait."
According to Rosenbaum, the film asks the viewer to empathize with Winslet, who shows no remorse for her deeds. She represented the mass of Germans who claim they didn't know about Hitler's plans to exterminate the Jews.
"That's the metaphoric thrust of the Kate Winslet character's 'illiteracy:' She's a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to 'read' the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens," Rosenbaum said. "To which one can only say: What a crock! Or if Hollywood has its way: Here's your Oscar."
Is the memory of the Holocaust fading?
Rosenbaum and other critics also question whether the Holocaust is the right backdrop for a love story. Can a "wistful looking" Winslet, as Rosenbaum said, and beautifully lighted images of Auschwitz do justice to one of the most tragic periods in history?
Around six million Jews perished in the Holocaust
"You could argue that the film isn't really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists," said Manohla Dargis in a review in The New York Times.
"But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy," Dargis said. "It's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation."
Scott Feinberg from the Los Angeles Times said Academy voters did favor films "which make some kind of important statement." Yet this was no guarantee for an Oscar.
"It's almost always the case that good movies float to the top," Feinberg said. "They're not going to reward junk just because it's about the Holocaust."
"The Reader" opens in Germany next week.