Kate Winslet should be afraid

Kate Winslet should be afraid


norman lebrecht

February 23, 2009

My heart sank to see Kate Winslet getting the best actress Oscar for her role in The Reader. Nothing to do with her acting, which was restrained to the point of inertia, nor to the way she looked on screen, which was seductive as ever.

The problem is the subject and the present context. The Reader is one of a present wave of works that is retweaking the Holocaust to a perpetrator perspective. The most pernicious is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones which retells the war through the eyes of a Jew-killer.

The Reader is not far behind, suggesting through Winslet’s performance – as I have written in a Littell review in today’s Evening Standard – that ‘a persuasive Kate Winslet conveys in her curvaceous nudity and expressionless enunciation the ugly falsehood that concentration camp murderers were ordinary people like you and me, only prettier.’

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi takes issue on rather different grounds with Tom Cruise’s revisionism in Operation Valkyrie. And I have further problems with Daniel Craig, in Defiance, as with Bernhard Schlink’s original novel.

What we are dealing with here is not Holocaust denial. Far from it. The common angle of approach of all these works is to suggest that anyone can commit genocide – you, me, or the girl at number three. The danger here is not delusionism on an Iranian Ahmedinejad scale. Rather it is the normalisation of a maniacal moment in history – a normalisation which, if it is allowed to persist unchecked, will assist and precipitate the next holocaust.

Kate Winslet did her job as an actress. She won an Oscar. She is moved to tears by that accolade.

She should be ashamed of her role and afraid of its insidious influence on warped and vulnerable minds.   


  • See also Ron Rosenbaum’s “Don’t Give an Oscar to ‘The Reader'” in Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2210804/
    NL to Lee: Good pick.

  • “…the ugly falsehood that concentration camp murderers were ordinary people like you and me…”
    “…a normalisation which, if it is allowed to persist unchecked, will assist and precipitate the next holocaust…”
    I haven’t seen The Reader yet, so I can’t comment on the film specifically, but you may want to familiarize yourself with the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiment. The unfortunate fact is that many (most?) of the Germans who participated in the Nazi holocaust _were_ more or less ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
    In the Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 college students were randomly assigned the role of either prisoner or prison guard. On day two of the experiment there was a riot. Through the course of the experiment the prisoners were tortured and humiliated in a variety of ways, and one third of the guards became downright sadistic. Philip Zimbardo, the director of the study, himself internalized the role of prison warden, sanctioning the mistreatment of the prisoners. Of the 50 outsiders who saw the experiment in progress, only one person suggested that it was immoral and out of control. The experiment was stopped early, only six days in, because the situation had gotten so bad.
    In the Milgram experiment, conducted at Yale in 1961, the subject is asked to administer shocks to a person who was supposedly performing a learning and memorization task but was in fact a confederate of the experimenter. With each “error” the “learner” made, the subject, referred to as the “teacher,” was told to increase the voltage. When the “teacher” administered a shock, prerecorded screams were played back from the separate room where the “learner” was, with more screaming at higher voltages. At a certain level, the “learner” would pound on the wall, complain about a heart condition, and beg for the experiment to be stopped. After a few shocks at that level, the “learner” would give no more response. If the subject asked to stop the experiment, the experimenter would tell him he had to continue. 65% of the subjects administered the final, apparently lethal, 450 volt shock. Only one of the 40 subjects refused to go on before the 300 volt level. Again, these subjects were regular people who had volunteered to participate in a university psych experiment.
    The danger isn’t the “normalisation of a maniacal moment in history,” but rather the continued false belief that WE as a people have the moral superiority not to commit our own atrocities.

  • I am afraid I must disagree with you on this one Mr. Lebrecht, and normally, I am right along side of you. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioner’s” shows the Nazi murderers as everyday you and me folks, the kind who live next door. Furthermore, there is an excellent exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, that shows pictures of casually dressed guards from Auschwitz on an outing complaining because the chef had run out of blueberries. And the woman looked like Kate Winslet. It is precisely this picture that is accurate. The German murderers were not some kind of visual monsters, but Kate Winslets and as in Schindler’s list Ralf Feinnes, who played Amon Goeth, the leader of Plaszow labor camp who also appeared in The Reader. Just your everyday next door neighbor. The Reader gives a very accurate picture of German, Latvian and Lithuanian arayan looking Nazi murderers and collaborators. I am sure that my parents, who are now both gone, but were both Holocaust survivors would agree.

  • Rainer Mockert says:

    I did not see the movie and will not, because of the reasons you wrote in your blog. Because I had the fear when I read the book that a film will give the wrong impression. THE PAWNBROKER by Sidney Lumet is for me still the only film about this time and probably THROUGH ROSES by Marc Neikrug. I produced a film years ago based on this piece with Maximilian Schell and Pinchas Zukerman and hope it will be released by the new label I am working with now. The story is about an violonist who survived Auschwitz. After Marc presented the film to an invited audience in Santa Fe was a q&a.
    An older couple was sitting in the audience, nothing saying, Marc asked them what they feel. The older man got up and did sing the lines of the chorus out of the film, which were the lines a chorus had to sing in Auschwitz on sundays behind a hedge of roses to the family of the Kommandant.
    NL to Rainer: I am chilled by your reminiscence. On sleepless nights I am visited by the image of Rod Steiger in the pawnshop. I doubt I will ever be reminded of Kate Winslet on top of a schoolboy.

  • Rainer Mockert says:

    Forgot to say that I really liked the book but was also horrified remembering the pictures of healthy looking watch women standing next to mountains of dead bodies, which were only skin and bones. The pictures were done after the liberation of the camps by members of the Allied Army.

  • Waddy Thompson says:

    Seems to me you missed the whole point of the movie. Winslet plays a woman whose moral compass is so far off that she is willing to admit to mass murder rather than reveal her illiteracy! Her young lover’s sympathy for her even after learning about her past is disturbing, but understandable given the role she played in his sexual awakening.

  • Ann F says:

    The problem is that the Holocaust wasn’t a single “maniacal moment in history” but one of many. It was one of the largest, longest, and widest-spread, but not even the most fatal.
    The massacres of Armenians or Assyrians in the early 20th century were attempted genocide; the largely deliberate starvation of Ukraine; arguably the enslavement of Korea by Japan, all of these were near the time of the Holocaust.
    We didn’t even learn enough from the Holocaust and those genocides. The world let Zanzibar, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Guatemala happen. Most of these murders, especially Rwanda, were committed by ordinary people, sometimes even acting as civilians without even the veneer of “orders.”
    So I’d respectfully argue that we need to understand even MORE our own capacity to demonize and dehumanize “the other” and that as individuals, we need to make sure that either by inattention or active participation, we don’t let the next genocide pass by as “something that other people do in places I don’t care much about.”
    NL to Ann (and Sonal, above): I agree entirely. There can be no relativism when it comes to mass murder. The German Holocaust was unique in scale but not in motivation. Those who cover up the Armenian genocide – exposed to world attention 76 years ago by Franz Werfel in 40 Days of Musa Dagh – along with more recent killings in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere commit the double crime of mocking the dead and preparing the ground for the next attoricty.

  • Sonal Panse says:

    I was going to say much the same thing as Galen Brown – the Stanford and the Milgram experiments – and Hannah Arendt’s book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, in which she coined the phrase ‘The Banality of Evil’.
    The most ‘ordinary’ people are quite capable of the most ‘extraordinary’ crimes.
    We’ve seen this all too often, not just with the Jewish Holocaust – but also with the Japanese Holocaust, the Armenian one, the Rwandan one, the Partition Massacres in India and the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib tortures, the Gaza killings….
    Often enough all it takes is a ‘good cause’ or ‘an order from a superior’.
    Not to mention a ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ separation.

  • If this premise holds, then ‘to kill a mocking bird’ promotes lynching, yes? i think most of the universe has grown tired of the post-modern whine.
    NL to Jeffery: Er, how exactly?

  • Lee Salomon says:

    Again we are in the midst of the Compulsive Critic who never allows his lack of knowledge remain in the path of his written opinions. In this case, Mr. Lebrecht is so wrong, he borders on the perverse.
    The other comments point out very clearly Mr. Lebrecht’s lack of reading in the subject of the banalities of evil. They properly cite Arendt, and they point out horrendous examples of ordinary people, like your very neighbors, committing terrible crimes against their OWN humanity. We see Ruwanda, for example, where people are murdered by neighbors they trusted and with whom they may even have shared food and drink.
    Again, the Compulsive Critic might take some time away from his auto-erotic musing long enough to learn a bit about the real work. The woman in The Reader is condemned because she had a ‘choice’ and chose the wrong course. It so easy, from a peaceful distance, to believe that choices come easily. William Styron’s novel about one mother’s choice makes the judge’s, and Mr. Lebrecht’s, criticisms rather irrelevant.
    Mr. Lebrecht, as part of his education about war, might read “The Knights of Bushido” by Lord Russell of Liverpool. There is a letter in that book in which a young Japanese soldier writes to his mother from a Pacific Island, telling her how he misses the beautiful flowers in their garden at home. The man waxes poetic on the beauties of Japan. But then he tells his mother that all is not bad. His sergeant is looking on him with favor and has allowed him to practice his swordsmanship by hacking to pieces a captured Australian flier A promotion may be in the offing. Isn’t he fortunate?
    Very commonplace people do extraordinary things. They also to horrifying things. Whether their acts are one or the other very often depends on who is doing the commentary. Mr. Lebrecht should exercise some restraint in the exercise of his moral snobbery.
    NL to Lee Salomon: I have read extensively on the subject in four languages. And you?

  • EveryCritic says:

    “She should be ashamed of her role and afraid of its insidious influence on warped and vulnerable minds.”
    Yes, by all means let’s have more one-dimensional villians in film. We don’t have enough of them.
    Perhaps Winslet could play Col. Klink next time?