Sunday, 18 January 2009

Schmitz = Koch?

The buzz about the film of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is fascinating - it's not been released in Germany yet, but my mum informs me the translator's name (Carol Brown Janeway) is bigger in the titles than the author's.

And now the Germanists are getting a bit of limelight too. Or one, at least. As most of the British press announced today with a flourish, Bill Niven, professor of contemporary German history at Nottingham Trent University, has revealed his suspicions about the model for Winslet's character Hanna Schmitz. His theory is that Schlink modelled his former concentration camp guard on Ilse Koch, the "bitch of Buchenwald".

The links are fairly tenuous, and I doubt the author will react. Ruth Klüger writes in her autobiography Still Alive - a Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, reflecting on how we look at the Holocaust now and the role of women under Hitler, specifically as concentration camp staff:

And what about Ilse Koch, the wife of a Buchenwald thug, and her famous lamp shades of human skin? It seems that we always pull the same names out of the hat when it comes to women, while the names of the men who committed atrocities are legion. (...) this is no attempt to exonerate the women who committed crimes, but how are we ever going to understand what happens when a civilization comes apart at its seams, as it did in Germany, if we fail to see the most glaring distinctions, such as the gender gap?

The area of female concentration camp guards is rather under-researched, it would seem, so it's not as if there was a great deal of choice when it comes to possible high-profile models. It's interesting, though, that this story broke in Britain rather than Germany. Perhaps it reflects the British obsession with celebrity - the idea that there must be a real person behind every piece of literature is even more headline-grabbing if that person is someone we've heard of. And imagine if that person was a famous Nazi sadist with her own snazzy alliterative nickname? Oh, the ecstasy.

1 comment:

teacher said...

there's an interesting essay by Cynthia Ozick, on 'The reader' (Schlink's novel) about this conflict you mention (I think it's in "Quarrel and Quandary" collection).