Before The Reader, yet another of this season’s myriad Holocaust movies, had been seen by a soul, it was already being talked about as an Academy Award vehicle for its lead actress, Kate Winslet. The Oscar buzz surrounding her performance hasn’t died down just yet, but with the film opening today, it unquestionably should: rarely, if ever, has a more sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi been put to film.

Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz) and David Kross (Michael)
Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz) and David Kross (Michael) in The Reader

The Reader is a fairly faithful adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Michael, a German who, at 15, has an affair with Hanna Schmitz, a brusque, mysterious older woman (Winslet) who, after a summer, abruptly ends things, leaving Michael heartbroken. The movie then jumps forward 10 years: Michael is now a law student sitting in on the trial of female Auschwitz prison guards, who in addition to committing, one assumes, the standard atrocities, allowed 400 Jewish women to burn alive in a church, refusing to open the doors lest disorder ensue. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.

Hanna’s former co-workers collude to identify her as their ringleader, the person who wrote the report defending their actions. Michael realizes this cannot be true: Hanna cannot read. Yet rather than admit to her humiliating, exonerating illiteracy, she chooses to take the blame. As Michael stands by, sobbing, Hanna receives a life sentence, while the other guards, who are just as guilty, receive only a few years in jail. Life, The Reader tells audiences in this moment, is not fair. There is no justice! Yet not, mind bogglingly, because six million men, women, children were murdered—but because one of their murderers has to spend her life in prison.

The Reader is not the first movie to portray a Nazi sympathetically, but it may be the first time a Nazi has been portrayed sympathetically without doing a single redeeming thing. In 2006’s far less serious, far less offensive, and far more entertaining Black Book, the Nazi commandant who is seduced by the film’s Jewish heroine ultimately falls in love with her and does what he can to protect her and her co-resistance fighters. Hanna, on the other hand, can’t quite grasp what was so wrong about letting all those women burn to death—after all, it was her job to keep the Jews under control no matter what. She did treat some of the women at Auschwitz kindly, asking them to read to her—and then she sent them to the gas chambers anyway.

Perhaps what’s most unsettling about The Reader is the lengths director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) has gone to make Hanna appealing. She’s played by Kate Winslet, so obviously she’s beautiful, plucky, and often naked. Despite being damaged, Hanna is alluringly prickly and kind to Michael, bathing him, caring for him when he’s sick, relishing when he reads to her. Daldry unleashes somber music, high-quality cinematography, and other talented actors (Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael: Lena Olin is the film’s sole Jew) at all the junctures that most encourage tears. By the time Winslet, after a decade in jail, decides to learn to read, you could almost be forgiven for rooting for her to succeed, like some literary Rocky. But as the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane said in his review of the film, “Are we really supposed to be moved by the sight of an unrepentant Nazi parsing Chekhov? That is not culturally nourishing; it is morally famished.”

At a recent screening of the film at the 92nd Street Y, Daldry was asked if he believed all guards at the camps were like Hanna (meaning as sympathetic as Winslet—not morally bankrupt). He defended the film by saying, “This is one story about one guard.” But just because there is a “story” inside everyone does not mean that there is a justification. The line between understanding why someone does horrible things and absolving her for them is a fine one, but The Reader operates as if it doesn’t exist. There is a difference between a reason and an excuse. It should go without saying, but apparently does not, that neither illiteracy nor blindly following orders is an excuse—or even a reason—for killing.