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Could 'Reader' controversy hurt Oscar chances?

  • Story Highlights
  • Plot of "The Reader" involves a former Nazi prison guard
  • Film is up for five Oscars, including best picture and best actress
  • Author says film asks audiences to "empathize with ... mass murderer"
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By Jack Hannah
CNN
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Editor's note: The following story about "The Reader," by necessity, contains spoilers. If you'd rather not know about the plot, stop reading now.

Kate Winslet and David Cross star in "The Reader," which has received criticism from some quarters.

Kate Winslet and David Cross star in "The Reader," which has received criticism from some quarters.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- One major contender's chances at Oscar gold may be damaged due to its sensitive subject matter.

"The Reader," which is up for five Oscars -- including best actress (for star Kate Winslet) and best picture -- is being slammed by "Explaining Hitler" author Ron Rosenbaum, who's asked Academy members to shun the post-World War II drama because the film "asks us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer."

Rosenbaum, who wrote his commentary for Slate.com, said that's not his only reason.

"It gives the impression that ordinary German people only learned the terrible things that happened in the death camps in the East after the war," he said in an interview with CNN. "In fact, ordinary German people participated in Hitler's final solution, the extermination of the Jews -- it was no secret." Read Rosenbaum's essay

Based on the German book with the same title, "The Reader" stars Winslet as Hanna Schmitz, a former Nazi prison guard living in postwar Germany. She meets and has a secretive affair with teenager Michael Berg (David Cross), who often reads aloud to her at her request. Unbeknownst to Michael, Hanna is illiterate.

Their affair ends abruptly when she mysteriously disappears.

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Eight years later, Michael is a law student. One day, while observing Nazi war criminals on trial, he's shocked to find Hanna as a defendant in the courtroom. The court finds her guilty of killing 300 Jewish women during the war and sentences her to life in prison. While behind bars, Michael sends her books on tape, which, over time, help Hanna finally learn to read.

Therein lies the problem for Rosenbaum.

"What essentially it did," said Rosenbaum, "was celebrate the enrichment of a life of a mass murderer when she learned how to read. ... Imagine if there were a film about Charles Manson learning how to play chess and what a better guy it made him."

However, others in the Jewish community are applauding the film, including Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Jacobson says "The Reader" opens itself up to criticism, but is worthy of an Oscar at the same time.

"I think it conveys a series of messages that actually are very powerful about the Holocaust, and it's not in the usual way," Jacobson told CNN.

"As time goes on, as we have Holocaust deniers emerging more and more, we need people to be able to relate personally to what happened," said Jacobson. "I think this film does this in a very powerful way."

The Weinstein Company, the studio behind "The Reader," says it is proud of the film. "It is sad that some people misinterpreted the film's message," the company said in a statement.

"It is not about the Holocaust," the company added, "it is about what Germany did to itself and its future generations."

Will Rosenbaum's piece, and the backlash he touched off, affect "The Reader's" Oscar chances Sunday? Entertainment reporter Tom O'Neil, who follows awards shows for the Los Angeles Times' TheEnvelope.com, doesn't think so. Given "The Reader's" five nominations, he believes Hollywood has already embraced the film.

"Oscar has taken special notice of 'The Reader' because it's not just your average Holocaust movie," said O'Neil. "It doesn't beg for forgiveness when dealing with Nazis. It makes you think."

Still, Rosenbaum says any further accolades for the drama would be unfortunate.

"I would be very disappointed in the intelligence level of Hollywood if it gave the best picture award to 'The Reader,' " he said.

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