Two Oscar-Nominated Films Deal With War Crimes and Guilt

Twenty years after World War II, Hanna Schmitz stands trial and is convicted for leading people to their deaths at a Nazi concentration camp during the war.

Until her trial, Hanna represses her guilt by telling herself that all she did at the camp was guard people. While in prison, she crumbles under the weight of her guilt.

The film, The Reader, focuses on the idea that crimes against humanity thrive on people’s reluctance to confront brutality.

Hanna’s story is told by her ex-lover, Michael Berg. A man half her age, Michael first meets Hanna in 1958 when he is 15 years old. She teaches him how to love. He reads to her. Their love affair lasts for a summer, but it marks Michael for life.

Michael, a lawyer, was a student during Hanna’s trial. He watches the proceedings from the back of the courtroom.

Her 20-year sentence shocks him, and and he questions a German legal system that sweeps through an entire society.

Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her stunning performance as Hanna. Ralph Fiennes interprets the older Michael, torn between his revulsion at Hanna’s actions and his deep affection for her.

In another film, Waltz with Bashir, recurring nightmares torment the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman. He dreams he is in a war-torn area he cannot identify.

Although he was a soldier, Folman does not remember taking part in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Beirut. He recalls nothing from that period of his life.

Determined to remember, Folman talks to army buddies. Some of them appear in his nightmares.

One by one, they tell him he fought alongside them in 1982.

The film’s animation and unearthly colors have a harrowing impact on the viewer because they add a hallucinatory quality to the warfare. Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is autobiographical; the filmmaker is narrator, reporter and main character. He includes interviews with witnesses of war, like Israeli reporter Ron Ben Yishai.

Suddenly Folman remembers. He had fought in Beirut and was near the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps when Christian Phalangists were slaughtering Palestinian civilians.

As in The Reader, Waltz with Bashir presents the story from the point of view of someone dealing with guilt. The films neither vilify the main characters nor do they empathize with them. They show them as they are, struggling with the realization that they were absent in the face of evil.