Having established a methodological approach to film as an ethical frame and having teased out a Levinasian notion of ethical time and discourse I will employ these insights in an analysis of the recent film The Reader. As this analysis will show, The Reader serves as a frame for discussing and debating the moral issues surrounding the Holocaust and Germany’s responsibility. David Hare, who wrote the screen play for the film, has written that the film was an attempt to articulate the dilemma of the succeeding generation of Germans who were wrestling with issue of truth and reconciliation. The film is concerned with the rupture of the holocaust which called into question everything we believed about humanity and the hope of redemption. This observation demonstrates the intentional ethical frame of The Reader and the latent capacity of films in the Cinema of Redemption to serve as agents of temporal rupture and ethical provocation.
Four questions punctuate The Reader and constitute diachronic ruptures in which the Other is revealed and redemption becomes possible. Each question is answered in the film by one of the characters but remains unanswered for the audience. The questions reveal our responsibility for the Other and provoke us to moral action. These questions become catalysts for redemption, not just for the characters but for the audience as well.
Do You Love Me?
The film opens with the central character and narrator Michael Berg reminiscing about a time when he was fifteen in the Germany of the 1930s and became violently ill on a tram. Unable to control himself he vomits on the tram and gets off at the next stop and wanders the streets until he becomes exhausted and pauses in alley way where he vomits again. Hanna Schmitz, a moderately attractive middle-aged tram conductor, happens upon him, takes him to her apartment, cleans him up and walks him home. This act of kindness and compassion overwhelms and arouses the young Michael Berg. For the next three months, Michael remains confined to his bed with scarlet fever. After his recovery he returns to Hanna’s apartment to thank her for her kindness. During the visit Michael catches sight of Hanna undressing and when she sees him watching her she seduces him. This begins a series of regular sexual liaisons after Michael gets out of school each day. During their encounters Hanna asks that Michael read to her. They read Homer, Chekhov, Lessing, Twain, and others.
After several weeks of their affair, Michael and Hanna agree to meet on her tram when her shift ends. Michael boards the second car of the tram that Hanna is working on but she is in the first car. Michael anticipates that she will move back to the second car but she doesn’t. In fact, she acts as if she doesn’t know him. Michael is hurt by this and follows Hanna to her apartment when she finishes her shift but she asks him to leave. He is devastated by her actions but Hanna is indifferent to his feelings. He cannot believe that this woman whom he loves could treat him in this way. Their argument escalates and he leaves but returns a short time later. He fears their relationship is ending but Hanna does not seem to mind. She is cold and indifferent. He tells her that he cannot imagine living without her and then asks her, “Do you love me?” She looks at him oddly as if the question is unintelligible. Suddenly, her indifference is ruptured by Michael’s question. The reverberations of a vulnerable Other echo in the question. She is bound to this Other, this boy whom she has seduced and used for her pleasure and intellectual stimulation. She is responsible for him. She nods and invites him to bathe with her. Her nod is not an answer but simply an affirmation of Michael’s proximity and her responsibility. She redeems him from despair with a nod. The question exceeds the bounds of “what is love?” and “who is loved?” The echo of the Other that makes love possible resounds in the question and reverberates in the ears of the audience. The affair ends abruptly after Hanna is notified that she is being promoted to a clerical position at the tram authority. Michael arrives at her apartment the next day only to find it empty and no sign of Hanna. He becomes distraught and mourns for his loss.
Have You Spent Much Time Thinking About The Past?
The film, then leaps to Michael’s days in law school in the 1960s where he takes a course taught by a professor who is a holocaust survivor. As part of the course the professor has the students attend a trial of several female SS guards who were accused of allowing 300 Jewish prisoners to die in a burning church during the Allied liberation of Auschwitz. Michael is shocked to see his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, among the defendants. During the trial a survivor of Auschwitz testifies that each of the guards on trial participated in the selection process that led to the extermination of prisoners under their watch. She adds that Hanna Schmitz had favorites that she would invite to her room to read to her and pass over in the selection process. Michael is reminded of their affair and how he used to read to her. When the court produces a handwritten report of the church fire Hanna’s fellow defendants testify that she wrote the report. Although she denies the allegation initially she eventually admits to writing it to avoid providing handwriting sample. Michael then realizes that Hanna is a functioning illiterate and would rather accept responsibility for genocide than admit her illiteracy.
When the judge asks Hanna about her role in the selection of prisoners for the gas chambers and whether or not she knew that she was sending them to their deaths; she admits that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and, quite matter-of-factly, admits that it was their job to select certain weaker and sickly prisoners for extermination in order to make room for new prisoners. Hanna, lives a Dasein-centric life embedded in synchronic time. There is no room for the otherness of the human beings to break into Hannah’s world. The human beings under her charge are interpreted in reference to her. They are prisoners because she is their guard. In, Hanna’s world there is only the referential totality of the prison camp.
Hanna’s embeddedness in a synchronic temporality is revealed when she asks the judge, “What would you have done?” The question ruptures the synchrony of the film. The questioner becomes the questioned. The judge appears to not even understand the question. He is shocked that Hanna is unaware of how she could have acted differently. She was only doing her job, she says. They were prisoners and she was a guard, she says. She had to make room for others. Her question to the judge exceeds the frame of the film and spills out into the audience. The echo of the Other resounds in the question as the one for whom we are responsible. The question provokes us to ask ourselves what we would have done in Hanna’s position. Redemption stands at the nexus of our vulnerability and our responsibility for the Other.
Michael, lives a Other-centered life overwhelmed by diachronic time. Michael is stunned to witness Hanna’s lack of remorse and the apparent banality of evil. How could this woman who had shown him such kindness, compassion and love, have committed such a heinous act without any remorse? Michael looks at the faces of survivors in the courtroom. He is overwhelmed by a temporal disjunction that cuts across his previous life with Hannah, his role as a student, and his own naive perspectives. Human beings were murdered. He cannot reduce them to prisoners. He is responsible for them and, ironically, he is responsible for Hannah. Michael can answer Hannah’s question, “What would you have done?” because he is vulnerable to the Other echoing in the question.
When Michael visits Auschwitz and plunges into a moral crisis. Michael is faced with a moral dilemma. He can notify the court that she is a functioning illiterate which would humiliate Hanna and absolve her of primary responsibility or he can remain silent and preserve her from shame and allow her to be convicted. Michael chooses not to disclose her secret and to let justice work itself out. Hanna receives a life sentence and is sent to prison. Michael goes on to begin his career, marry, and have children, leaving his past with Hanna behind.
Hare, David. “Truth and Reconciliation,” The Guardian
, December 13, 20008.
Time is a crucial theme in the work of Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Lévinas. It stands as a point of divergence between these two thinkers. For Heidegger, time is a product of a solitary subject in the world. For Lévinas, time is a relationship between a subject and the Other. In this essay, I will compare and contrast each of these thinker’s notions of time and argue that Heidegger’s notion of time is Dasein-centric
and leaves no room for the other, while Lévinas’ notion of time is Other-centric and creates space for difference. The point of these distinctions will be to demonstrate that Heidegger’s notion of time makes justice impossible and Lévinas’ notion of time makes justice possible. I will then apply this analysis to the two principle characters in the film The Reader
. Assuming our previous characterization of film as an ethical frame and The Reader
as an example of the Cinema of Redemption
I will argue that the character Hannah Schmitz lives a Dasein
-centric life embedded in synchronic time; whereas, the character Michael Berg lives an Other-centric life overwhelmed by diachronic time. By employing these two characters in this way, The Reader
can be characterized as confronting the audience with an ethical dilemma by employing the element of temporal disjunction.
For Martin Heidegger time is the horizon for the understanding of Being and temporality is the Being of Dasein, which understands Being. In a certain sense, Heidegger sees being and time as synonymous terms. Dasein is a temporal being, which Heidegger calls Being-in-the-world, who is thrown into existence and stretched along between birth and death. The stretching along between birth and death constitutes the historical temporality of Dasein. Dasein is a historical being in time. Time is therefore Dasein-centric.
Heidegger observes that birth is the beginning of dying for Dasein and that its existence is a Being-towards-death. Death, Heidegger says, is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein. Death confronts Dasein with its finitude. Additionally, death reveals the possibility of Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being. Dasein responds to death by either fleeing from it (falling) or anticipating it (resoluteness) both of which constitute an existential structure that Heidegger calls care. Birth and Death are connected in the between of Dasein’s care.  Heidegger describes the structure of care as a primordial structural totality of Being-ahead-of-itself (future), Being-already-in (past), and Being-alongside-entities-within-the-world (present). Unlike things which simply persist through time, Dasein is aware of the past, present and future as a meaningful integrated whole. However, Heidegger is adamant that Dasein is first and foremost a furtural being in that Dasein, in its own most potentiality-for-Being, comes toward itself. The essence of Dasein’s existence is therefore the temporalization of its temporality.
In The Reader, Hannah Schmitz, lives a Dasein-centric life embedded in synchronic time. When Hannah is asked at her trial why she did not release prisoners from a burning barn she responded that she was a guard and her it was her job to prevent the prisoners from escaping. There is no room for the otherness of the human beings burning to death in the barn to break into Hannah’s world. The people inside the barn are interpreted in reference to her. They are prisoners because she is their guard. In, Hannah’s world there is only the referential totality of the prison camp. Her embeddedness in a synchronic temporality is revealed when she asks the judge “what would you have done?” She is clearly not blind to other options. The prisoners must die because her role as guard does not allow any other option.
Dr. Charles Bambach (University of Texas at Dallas) and Dr. Gilbert Garza (University of Dallas) recently made me aware that this characterization of Heidegger only represents the early-Heidegger and does not take into account the onto-centric shift in the later Heidegger.
Heidegger, Being and Time
Ibid., 174, 425.
Ibid., 237, 238.
Using the conceptual models and critical methodologies of Gilles Deleuze, Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas on time, movement, narrative and ethics, Sam B. Girgus has suggested the term Cinema of Redemption to describe films released from the 1930s through the 1960s that enact and promulgate a Levinasian ethic. Girgus observes that films in this group are based upon a narrative paradigm of moral crisis and conversion that lead to the protagonist’s redemption through self-abnegation. Girgus explains:
The films in this group
[Cinema of Redemption] invariably centre on a moment of moral crisis and conversion of personal belief and action for a hero who adopts an ethical code that resonates with Levinasian ethics on the level of popular culture expression. This change involves an abnegation and sacrifice of the self, almost at times to the point of martyrdom, in favour of the ethical priority of the other. It proclaims absolute responsibility for the other.
Examples of these types of films include: Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and his It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) and The Hustler (1961), Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). Girgus points out that in each of these films the hero often experiences a different dimension of time that suggests an ethical realm that breaks from ordinary life. This new experience demands different ways of thinking, looking and ultimately living. The hero’s experience of the ethical realm constitutes a temporal disjunction that enables the protagonist to act from an ethical position of love and compassion for the other.
Girgus develops this notion of temporal disjunction out of Levinas’ distinction between synchronic
time in which everything is crystallized and sclerosized into substance
time which is infinite and therefore refuses conjunction and totalization.
The ethical realm is a transcendent realm that interrupts the life of the protagonist bringing about a moral crises that is resolved in an act of substitution for the other. Beyond the experience of the protagonist, it could be argued that the audience also vicariously experiences this temporal disjunction. The liminal quality of the protagonist’s crisis and conversion creates a cinematic chiasm
by which the diachronic ethical realm breaks into the synchronic realm of the audience. The hero’s crisis and conversion becomes a vicarious conversion for the audience and leads to moral crisis to be resolved negatively, positively, or indifferently at the conclusion of the film. This chiastic in the Cinema of Redemption
allows these films to serve as agents of temporal disjunction and ethical provocation.
It could be argued that the periodization of the Cinema of Redemption could be expanded beyond the 1930s and 1960s to include any film that is based on a narrative paradigm of moral crisis and conversion that lead to the protagonist’s redemption through self-abnegation. If this expansion is accepted, Stephen Daldry’s recent film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader , which takes place during the 1930s and the 1960s, could be characterized as a film in this group. David Hare, who wrote the screen play for the movie has observed that Schlink’s novel was attempt to articulate the dilemma of the succeeding generation of Germans who were wrestling with issue of truth and reconciliation. This observation demonstrates intentional ethical frame of The Reader and the latent capacity of films in the Cinema of Redemption to serve as agents of temporal disjunction and ethical provocation.
 Girgus, Sam B. “Beyond Ontology: Levinas and the Ethical Frame in Film,” Film-Philosophy 11.2 (2007): 98, .
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 99.
 Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981. Orginally published as Autrement quêtre ou au-delà de l’essence (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1974), 9, 11.
 Hare, David. “Truth and Reconciliation,” The Guardian, December 13, 20008.
Legend has it that the ancient Cynic Diogenes used to roam the streets of Athens during the day carrying a lantern and searching for an honest man. The aim of Cynicism was to strip away the conventions and customs from life to lay bear the truth of nature. Diogenes repudiated social values and institutions and once even defaced currency which led to his exile from his hometown of Sinope. Bill Maher assumes a Diogenic role in the documentary Religulous and searches for an answer to his questions about religion. However, his search is selective and his questions are like sinister Halloween candy concealing a critique of razor blades and glass.
While I watched Religulous I found myself both amused and disappointed at Maher’s attack on a host of religious straw-men. There are plenty of fundamentalist truckers, creation scientists, converted homosexuals, fundamentalist Imams, cannabis devotees, and people claiming to be the second coming of Christ. But, curiously absent are the philosophers and theologians who have spent the majority of their lives working through the thorny issues Maher wants to shine the light of his lantern upon. It would have been nice to see Maher interview Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, or Houston Smith. Perhaps Maher wasn’t really looking for answers but merely an army of straw men to knock down in triumph. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” reveals that the sources you use will determine the answers you receive. Maher’s interlucutors are incapable of providing him with the answers he seeks and this lends support to his overal critique.
On the one hand, the documentary makes a good point: religion, like fire, can be dangerous in spite of its benefits. But, Rama Krishna’s reversal of this notion is instructive as well: “religion is like a cow: it kicks, but it gives milk too.” Maher offers a rational and cynical critique of religion by exposing its weaknesses through its most extreme representatives. Unwittingly, in his vitriolic critique of religion he ends up constructing his own religion. When it comes down to it, human beings are governed by a cognitive imperative which imposes order on reality in an effort to bind all of the disparate parts of life together and derive meaning from it. Religion (Latin religare: to tie back, to bind together) is the way human beings do that. Whether it is fundamentalist truckers explaining how the Shroud of Turin proves the virgin birth or a cynical comedian demonstrating the bankruptcy of religion through its most extreme caricatures, human beings are fundamentally religious. Religion is inescapable for human beings and Maher’s recommendation for its abandonment will only result in its transmutation.