Film studies: See no evil

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 January, 2009, 12:00am

'What would you have done?' asks Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, as she defends herself against charges alleging she took part in atrocities as a guard at a German death-camp during the second world war. It's a key moment in Stephen Daldry's film, an adaptation of a Bernard Schlink novel from 1995: those five words still strike raw nerves among those present at the trial, even if the Holocaust was already 20 years or a generation away. And it reveals fears which resonate even among audiences today - that ordinary folk, shaped by a sense of vulnerability in uncertain times, could adjust their moral compasses and participate in wicked deeds to save themselves.

In The Reader, the illiterate ex-warden's decision to work in the camps is not driven by ideology; she joined up, she says, simply 'because [the SS] were looking for guards'. Her insistence about her innocence looks increasingly perverse to observers as more details of her crimes are revealed during the trial - she had inmates read books to her before they were sent to the gas chambers and she failed to save hundreds of her charges from death in a fire at a church. What makes the character even more troubling is how she doesn't look like the usual caricatured Nazi villain of Hollywood productions: when the film begins, Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet, below) is a matronly bus conductor, who is seen taking care of an ailing teenager (played by David Kross) before engaging in a torrid affair with him.

It's interesting to compare The Reader with Valkyrie, a film which also explores how a German reacts to the aggression and pogroms committed by his country's leaders. In the latter, the protagonist, the veteran soldier and aristocrat Claus von Stauffenberg, is an immaculate hero, risking all to bring down the Nazi regime. Based on a real attempt on Adolf Hitler's life on July 20, 1944, Valkyrie's Stauffenberg (who leads the operation to bring down the Nazis, and is played by Tom Cruise in the film) is void of political or moral nuances, and is portrayed as someone whose aims are to save not just Germany but the world. The film's tagline reads: 'Many saw evil. They dared to stop it.' The fact that the real Stauffenberg was a conservative nationalist was not commented on, nor what his own ruling ideology would be if his group was to come to power.

But it's a Polish film from 1963, made by a director who was killed in a car crash before the production was finished, that definitively examines responsibility and guilt for Holocaust perpetrators. Andrzej Munk's Passenger revolves around Liza, a middle-aged German returning to Europe on an ocean liner whose memories of her past as a SS guard at Auschwitz come flooding back when she catches sight of a passenger who resembles Marta, an inmate under her charge.

Racked by self-reproach, she gives her husband - an emigrant she married abroad after the war - a sanitised account of what she did in Auschwitz, peppering her story with comments about how 'she had to live and obey our leaders... some were drunk with power but I just did my duty', and that she's 'as helpless as Marta'. What follows, however, is the real story: fleshing out her first tale - 'a nobler version', says Liza's voiceover - Munk reveals someone who is as brutal as Hanna Schmitz was in The Reader, her treatment of Marta stemmed more from self-interest than kindness. 'Justifying is only human,' she says.

By exposing the fallibility of human nature, Munk delivered one of the sharpest films to be made about the Holocaust. The stark imagery of the brutal realities of Auschwitz aside, Passenger delves headlong into Liza's psyche, rummaging through her instinct to lie and deny, leading audiences to reflect on what one would, or could, have done in those circumstances.

Passenger screens at the Hong Kong Science Museum on Sunday, 2pm; Valkyrie opens on Feb 12; The Reader opens on Mar 12