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An Interview with Bernhard Schlink

Since 1993, Bernhard Schlink has been a frequent visitor at Cardozo, teaching and participating in a variety of symposia and special events. In his native Germany, he is well known as a professor and legal scholar, a former Constitutional Court judge, and the author of many novels, including The Reader, a best-selling book in the United States, which was made into an award-winning feature film in 2008 that starred Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. Schlink was at Cardozo during the fall 2008 semester, just as The Reader was being released in theaters across the country. Since the time of this interview with Cardozo Life’s Susan Davis, The Reader has won many prizes, including an Academy Award for Winslet.

DAVIS: I just heard that the film The Reader has been nominated by the foreign press for three Golden Globe Awards. This is very good news. Congratulations.

SCHLINK: Yes, that is good news.

DAVIS: I presume it will help increase your book sales and that it will have an impact on your work for film and television.

SCHLINK: I hope so. Homecoming, another novel of mine, is to be made into a movie. I’m just writing the script. And my mysteries, a trilogy, may become a German television series. So, yes, interesting things are happening.

DAVIS: Did you write the script for The Reader?

SCHLINK: No, that was David Hare.

DAVIS: Did you work with him at all on the screenplay?

SCHLINK: I met several times with David Hare and Stephen Daldry, the director. It was during the screenwriters’ strike, so Stephen and I met quite frequently. We talked about the script and discussed problems and solutions.

DAVIS: Had you written or worked on a screenplay before?

SCHLINK: I had written one screenplay for a German television movie, but then the director was fired and replaced by a new director, who wrote a new screenplay. But it was fun.

DAVIS: And what about the casting for The Reader? Were you pleased with Kate Winslet? I know Nicole Kidman was originally supposed to star in it.

SCHLINK: Kate Winslet always was my first choice. Originally it looked as if she couldn’t do it because she had too many other commitments. Then, after Nicole became pregnant, Kate reconsidered and agreed to the project.

DAVIS: And how about Ralph Fiennes?

SCHLINK: He’s a wonderful actor and a very nice man. I was delighted to meet him two or three times.

Literature is something you carry with you, that holds and supports you in situations of difficulty, sadness, and loneliness.

DAVIS: So were you pleased with the film?

SCHLINK: I am truly pleased with the film. Of course, there are things that I would have done differently here and there, but I understand and respect the choices Stephen Daldry made.

DAVIS: I haven’t seen the film yet; however, after reading the reviews in the American press, which seemed somewhat mixed, I was surprised by the very positive reaction fromthe foreign press, which nominated The Reader for best picture, Stephen Daldry for best director, and Kate Winslet for best actress. Do you think this is a result of Americans and Europeans seeing the Holocaust in different terms and, therefore, judging the film in a different way?

SCHLINK: I think it’s the same criticism that my book encountered. I expected it to come back with the film-here and in Europe, where the book also found a mixed resonance. Some reviewers asked: How can you portray someone who committed the most monstrous crimes with a human face? Don’t you turn the Germans into victims? Don’t you turn things upside down? Some see the book as being about the Holocaust, which it isn’t. Others argue that books and films about the Holocaust should only be documentaries. So I was prepared for the film critics.

DAVIS: If the book is not about the Holocaust, would you say it is about guilt?

SCHLINK: It’s about the generation of Germans who grew up after World War II-what we call the second generation- coping with what our parents’ generation did. Learning that the beloved parents, or admired teachers and professors, or respected pastors and other figures of love and authority had a dark past, had been involved in crimes. How do you deal with that? You realize that in a way you are entangled in the guilt of those whom you love or keep solidarity with. It is a German topic, but it has a universal aspect.

DAVIS: Do you think you learn guilt at home as you grow up, the way you learn racism or bigotry? Or does the guilt just permeate the society?

SCHLINK: I suppose you can say we learn all emotions. There are children who are brought up so that as adults they are unable to love. Kids can probably be brought up unable to feel guilt or remorse, too. I think it is a normal thing to learn these emotions and is not specifically cultural. However, questions like: What should I do when I learn that someone I love is guilty? Do I have to break with this person? Can I keep this person in my life? These questions are universal.

DAVIS: I’m curious about whether this guilt has moved beyond your generation into the one following yours, and into the generation now growing up in Germany.

SCHLINK: I think you find guilt as long as there is a personal relationship with those who committed the crimes. So formy son’s generation, the beloved grandfather plays a similar role to the one that beloved parents and teachers played for my generation. If you don’t have a personal relationship, the feeling becomes much more abstract. You can’t really love your dead great-grandfather, nor do you feel compelled to break with him. So the guilt disappears in the fourth generation.

DAVIS: In The Reader, Hanna Schmitz learns to read from Michael Berg. Do you see reading as a way of learning right from wrong? Is it about a dialogue between the author and the reader?

SCHLINK: In the book, Michael reads to Hanna on cassettes and sends them to her once she is in prison. But he never writes to her and he never comes to see her. So it is a communication without him fully and truly engaging in communication. Reading to someone is talking to the person and not talking to the person. It represents also the difficulty that the first and second generation had talking to each other. There wasn’t much real, true communication going on. But there was a kind of message sent from one to the other- back and forth.

Reading doesn’t make you a moral and good person, but it does widen your horizon, and gives you a chance to widen your moral horizon. Although it is certainly no guarantee. I never meant to say that once Hanna began to read she became a good person. We know that a big percentage of the Einsatzgruppen, who killed Jews, Poles, and Russians behind the front, were academics.

I think that literature, in a way, is an institution. It’s something that is bigger than you. We hear stories about people in solitary confinement who have nothing to read, nothing to do, and then start remembering the books they have read. So literature is something you carry with you, that holds and supports you in situations of difficulty, sadness, and loneliness.

DAVIS: Your book The Reader was given a big boost by being chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection. Do you know how this happened?

SCHLINK: I heard it was a word-of-mouth-book. Small book clubs all over the country write to Oprah when they love a book. Oprah apparently got so much mail about The Reader that she decided to read the book herself and chose to do a show around it.

DAVIS: She’s a pretty big phenomenon, don’t you think?

SCHLINK: She’s an amazing phenomenon. I think what she does for the reading culture in this country is fantastic.

I also admire the way she deals with people. She’s very direct. When I was on her show, she invited a group of people to discuss the book. If she thought someone said something wrong, she made clear that she found it wrong. But she did it in such a direct and engaged way, and made it so obvious that she cared for the other opinions, that no one took her criticism as an offense. She also had a great way of leading the discussion. I was very impressed.

DAVIS: In Germany, are you recognized on the street, like a kind of superstar?

SCHLINK: Somtimes people come up to me, people on the same bus or train, in a train station or a store. They are always nice. So it’s a nice experience.

DAVIS: Why did you choose law as a profession?

SCHLINK: One reason was having a childhood under my mother’s Calvinist influence, and her constant thinking and talking about issues of responsibility and guilt. I became interested in justice-man’s justice, not God’s. Another reason was the joy I found in the law as a topic that has theoretical depth but doesn’t turn into a never-ending discourse; it has to be brought to the point of a solution and a decision.

DAVIS: I’m curious about how you integrate your novel and short-story writing with your legal writing and your legal career. Do you spend a week on one and a week on the other?

SCHLINK: Well, I need a couple of hours to get into writing. An afternoon or a full morning is really nice. But I try to carve out bigger chunks of time, a full day, a weekend, or even a whole week or weeks. I put aside whatever might come along and devote the time to writing.

DAVIS: I understand that your more recent novel has to do with jurisprudence and teaching. Have you included Cardozo in it?

SCHLINK: Law seeps into much that I write. In Homecoming there is a professor who teaches at Columbia, a political scientist and a lawyer by training, but not a law professor. This character had to be a political scientist; otherwise I would have loved to bring Cardozo into it.

DAVIS: Is it true that the first time you came to Cardozo, it was as part of a delegation to better understand how we do legal training in this country?

SCHLINK: Well, that was many years ago, in the mid-’80s. Germany’s first private university, the University of Witten- Herdecke, wanted to start a law school and asked me to be the first dean and to develop a new curriculum-something special. I wanted to find an American law school to be a partner and then intertwine German legal education with American legal education. My idea was that upon graduation, the students would take the German first state exam and the New York bar exam. So I came to talk to different law schools, and Cardozo was interested, but finally decided against it. Not too long after that, the German university found it didn’t have the money, and the project never happened. But the good thing that came from this was that I got in touch with Cardozo.

DAVIS: Was it the people you were most interested in, or was there something specific about Cardozo?

SCHLINK: Initially the Cardozo faculty invited me to participate in a Hegel conference, and then a Derrida conference and a Habermas conference. What I really liked and what gives Cardozo its very special standing in Europe is its fine way of being both a traditional law school, teaching the nuts and bolts of law, and one with a special interest in theory, philosophy, and history. I understand that this causes some tension, but I think it’s crucial that Cardozo lives with both. Again and again, I am approached by students in Germany who have learned about Cardozo because of this special feature and want to know more about it.

DAVIS: Do you think the tension helps create the environment that you find so appealing?

SCHLINK: Yes, I do. Maybe balance is a better word here than tension-balance between professors who think Cardozo should be a traditional law school on as high a level as possible and others who understand that there is much more to law: theory, philosophy, history, literature. Keeping this balance gives Cardozo its unique standing.

Bernhard Schlink

DAVIS: How do you think Cardozo can stay this way?

SCHLINK: The faculty does it by being what it is and by hiring people who keep on teaching and researching in this tradition. And I am happy that the faculty keeps inviting me to visit.

DAVIS: Are you still teaching law in Germany?

SCHLINK: Yes. I still teach at Humboldt University, but have reduced my teaching load.

DAVIS: Are you still a judge on the Constitutional Law Court for the State of Nordrhein-Westfalen, Munster?

SCHLINK: No. I sat on the court for 18 years and could have been reelected for another six-year term, but I felt that it was enough. You go through different stages as a judge. First, one has to learn before fully mastering the role. For example, you have to learn when to say something-not too early, not too late; how to form coalitions without ever talking about forming coalitions; how to negotiate the final text of a decision. Finally, I was the oldest one on the bench, and I enjoyed being listened to as such. I realized I had gone through all the possible stages, so I thought it was enough.

DAVIS: Were you the dean of Humboldt during the unification of East and West Germany?

SCHLINK: No, right after that. During unification the dean was someone from the old German Democratic Republic. (Humboldt is located in the part of Berlin that belonged to the GDR.) That dean did a good job organizing a gradual transition and a structure in which some of the old could be kept.

DAVIS: Do you mean old and new people? Old and new law?

SCHLINK: Old and new professors. In East Germany, as in all Communist countries, law didn’t play the role that it plays in the West. What was important was Party rule. So the training and the professional and scholarly experiences of professors from East and West Germany were quite different. I found then that it was easier to talk about law with an American colleague than with one from the GDR.

DAVIS: Was there a huge influx of law students from East Germany?

SCHLINK: Many came. In the old GDR, if you were a man, you had to be an officer in the army to be allowed to go to law school. As a woman you had to have finished some kind of training-crane driver, carpenter, nurse, all kinds of professions. Once the Berlin Wall came down, law school was open to everyone who had finished high school.

DAVIS: I read an essay you wrote not too long ago about the constitutionality in Germany of shooting down a hijacked plane. Are there certain constitutional hot-button issues that you are currently involved with in Germany?

SCHLINK: I wrote against a statute that would have allowed the President to order the shooting down of a hijacked plane. As I had argued, the Constitutional Court decided the statute was not constitutional, ruling that hijacked airplanes must not be shot down unless the only people in them are terrorists. For the court it was a matter of human dignity.

In German constitutional law, the current issues on the table are about terrorism and how to deal with it. How much eavesdropping is allowable? What technical means can be used to obtain information? Can computers be accessed without the owner’s knowledge? The more one knows, the better one is able to fight terrorism. The amount of information that can be useful, if well organized, is endless. Are the government, the police, the secret service therefore entitled to inform themselves without limitation? The Federal Constitutional Court says that even though some information may turn out to be useful in certain situations, acquiring it goes too far. It tries to find a middle road. That is something that I and many of my colleagues support.

DAVIS: It makes me think of the movie The Lives of Others. Did you see it?

SCHLINK: I think the film is a beautiful fairy tale. It helped reconcile East and West Germans. The West Germans got the feeling that, yes, it was bad in East Germany, but there were good people even among the Stasis. It made the East Germans feel that although there was much wrong in their state, they didn’t have to only condemn their past. It really contributed to the two coming together. Legends can help.

DAVIS: How about President Obama? Do Germans love him?

SCHLINK: The German people like Obama and are glad that the Bush years are over. They understand that this doesn’t mean the US will become less demanding and challenging. Times are tough. But since Obama seems to be someone who knows more, understands more, cares more, is better read, is more sensitive, Europe is ready to be challenged more, to have more demanded of it.

DAVIS: And how did you find your most recent experience at Cardozo?

SCHLINK: Over the course of the years, I see Cardozo students getting better and better. It is great.

I co-taught two courses: Comparative Constitutionalism with Michel Rosenfeld, as always a great joy, and Law and Literature with Richard Weisberg, something I had never taught before. It was very generous of Richard to invite me to co-teach. The students were remarkable, very engaged. And I learned a lot. How Richard made the students aware of jurisprudential and philosophical problems through literature was beautiful. Take, for instance, Melville’s Billy Budd. Richard led the students into a discussion of positive law and natural law, the idea of positivism, and how behind this idea something completely different can hide. I came to understand that there are students who have a problem accessing these issues when reading philosophy, but are happy to engage with them through literature.

DAVIS: Then, you taught with our two French Legion of Honor winners.

SCHLINK: Yes, I did. And I am one myself.

DAVIS: Are you returning to Cardozo soon?

SCHLINK: Michael Herz and I talked about the possibility of my returning in spring 2010. But I understand that right now no one can make promises due to the economic situation. I’d be happy to come back. Over the years I’ve been invited to teach at other law schools, but since I keep enjoying Cardozo, why go somewhere else?

Another reason was the joy I found in the law as a topic that has
theoretical depth but doesn’t turn into a never-ending discourse;
it has to be brought to the point of a solution and a decision.