In the movie, "The Reader," Hannah Schmitz is on trial for her Nazi-era war crimes as an SS officer and prison guard, including the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners kept locked in a burning church. Why, she’s asked, didn’t you let them out? Her answer, a terrifying one, is that she couldn’t. The prisoners might escape. "There would be chaos," she said.
Schmitz’s matter-of-fact choice – the death of others before a perceived risk of disorder – shocks the courtroom. Schmitz’s act is terrifying, but not because it is a rare moral failure. It’s because it is so common. Another Hannah, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, called this sort of evil banal. By that she meant that ordinary people often commit evil acts. They are not sociopaths. They are simply and unquestioningly following the rules of their culture or state.
Isn’t this one way to describe the American health care system and the resistance to reform? Don’t we keep many locked inside the burning building of a system that denies health care to millions? Don’t we coldly guarantee their ill health and death, because reform threatens some sort of ideological disorder?
Good art is transformative, and it refuses reduction to simple summary or "the-moral-of-the-story" analysis. There’s much more to Schmitz’s awful choice, including her inability to imagine, even in retrospect, that another choice was possible. The story of "The Reader" is about love, evil, redemption, memory, and the role of storytelling itself in the possibility of love and empathy.
In brief, "The Reader" is about a young German boy, Michael Berg, who, after a chance encounter and an erotic affair, falls in love with the older Schmitz. Much of their time together is spent with him reading to her from novels great and trivial. Some years later, his law school class attends the war crimes tribunal in which Schmitz stands accused.
While watching the movie, the first thing that came to my mind was historian Lynn Hunt’s fascinating thesis that the rise of the novel greatly expanded the human capacity for empathy with strangers. The film plays with this empathy-producing feature of narrative, leading us at the outset to empathize with Schmitz, whose simple act of kindness toward the boy, Michael, leads to the affair.
Then, along with Michael, we are forced to confront the moral implications of our attachment to Schmitz when we discover her terrible past. Michael’s dilemma is this: Rather than admit to her illiteracy, she confesses to writing a report that damns her in connection with the church fire that killed 300. Michael, though, knows she couldn’t have written it because he knows she’s illiterate. What should he do? What can he do?
This brings me back to the awful truth of the banality of evil. What are we to do when confronted with many who resist health care reform because they lack the independence and insight to imagine the consequences of their resistance? It is very easy to demonize (easy because they deserve it) powerful and greedy leaders of the medical/insurance industrial complex. They know what they do.
But, as Michael discovers, it is not so easy to condemn their blind and deaf functionaries. Nor is it easy to forgive them.
Schmitz clearly has a capacity for empathy. We see this in her reaction to great stories, by Chekov, Twain, and others. But that capacity was deadened by the Nazi state.
And so it is with a large number of Americans who defend a murderous health care system because their state has convinced them that chaos would follow reform. Their capacity for empathy is turned off by a thousand different cultural influences that celebrate selfishness and make "others" invisible or vaguely dangerous. After all, they can say, they didn’t set the building ablaze. Order requires that they allow others to die behind the locked doors.
As the story of "The Reader" unfolds, we recognize the need to enliven the capacity for empathy among those who have lost it. And the best way to do that is through storytelling. Which is why many contemporary thinkers (George Lakoff, for instance ) advise progressives to awaken the capacity for empathy by using powerful, emotional narratives that make plain our moral responsibilities to and for one another.