The Reviewer: “The Reader”

“The Reader” offers the modern audience a glimpse at a story resembling the tragedies of Ancient Greece. Viewers will find themselves surprised, appalled, delighted and frightened all at the same time. Be prepared to express the most sympathy and empathy for Kate Winslet’s character, Hanna Schmitz, a guard for the Nazis. You’ll ask yourself, how could a woman who actively participated in the mass extermination of an entire religious group be the character I feel closest to?

The answer lies in the wisdom of Ancient Greece. Many Greek philosophers debated the value and purpose of art, particularly poetry and theatre. While Plato saw art as condemnable, Aristotle found art’s value in its ability to teach its viewers lessons of humanity. I recalled Aristotle’s concept of tragedy and catharsis as I experienced “The Reader.”

Aristotle describes tragedy as:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament (rhythm, harmony, and song) being found in separate parts of the play, in form of action, not of narrative (Poetics VI, 2).“The Reader” illustrates a fictitious experience in relation to the very real Nazi Germany, one of the most horrifying and compelling points in human history. While I did learn something about the historical significance of the attempt at complete extermination of the Jews, I learned far more about the human condition. Many of my preconceived notions and stereotypes about humanity were shattered. I recognized an intense wisdom in Hanna, a woman who was illiterate for much of her life. Instead of viewing her as a woman of stupidity, I saw a woman with specific values and perception. While she was the “killer” in the court, I felt far more disgust towards the main character, for his lack of courage.

Aristotle argued in his work Poetics that the very best tragedies grant the viewer the experience of catharsis. A word of Greek origin, catharsis refers to the purging and cleansing of the soul, a renewal of sorts. A successful tragedy will force viewers to experience both fear and pity for the characters, and relate those emotions to their own life. Viewers will feel more empathy for fellow members of society in knowing that everyone has troubles and conflicts that are difficult to overcome. With this revelation, comes a catharsis.

In sympathizing with a Nazi, I felt extremely uncomfortable. In experiencing empathy for Schmitz, an offender linked to one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, I realized something I’ve known, but don’t always keep in the forefront of my mind – perspective changes everything.

In “The Reader”, I felt something that must have resembled catharsis.

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