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Degrees of guilt in Nicolaides' Thai insult case

Kate Winslett and David Kross in The ReaderOn 4 September 2008, I received an email from an acquaintance of Harry Nicolaides, a Thailand based, Melbourne journalist and sometime contributor to Eureka Street. Her tone was anxious. Harry had been arrested in Bangkok.

'He is not a criminal,' she insisted. 'He wants you to publish his story ... He is in a bad condition, physically and mentally. Please help.'

We acted immediately. Clearing the next day's edition, we contacted Canberra academics Nicholas Farrelly and Andrew Walker, experts in Thai politics and critics of the law (lèse majesté, regarding insulting Thai royals) under which Harry had been arrested. Within a few hours they produced a terrific article that looked at the particulars of Harry's case and offered a critique of the lèse majesté law.

'In Thailand, it is even hard to report the details of a lèse majesté charge without fear of sanction,' they wrote. 'Hopefully foreign journalists will exercise their greater freedom to report on his predicament.'

That's what we intended to do. We prepared their article for publication first thing the following day. We hoped that, in our own way, we would be helping to spread good will regarding Harry and his predicament.

It wasn't to be. At 6.32 p.m. I received a second note from our correspondent: 'Please do not publish the article. If we say anything that offends the Thai government, it will not help Harry.' The sentiment was reinforced by a phone call from a relative of Harry's.

We hit the brakes. With only a mouse-click remaining to complete the process of publishing the article, we decided to abide by the request. We withdrew the article, a decision received graciously by Nich and Andrew, who later revised and published it on their blog.

Harry's story, which received much media attention in Australia, is now well known. He was sentenced, jailed, and recently pardoned. He has now returned to Australia.

All of which has what to do with this week's film review? Well, not a lot. Except that both Harry's story, and the film The Reader, promote reflection on the nature of guilt.

Few would dispute that Harry was legally guilty. Those who travel are responsible for familiarising themselves with local laws. Harry, it seemed, had flaunted this one. Indeed, 'Harry doesn't want the press to condemn Thai laws,' our correspondent insisted. 'He respects Thai law.'

On the other hand, morally speaking, Harry's guilt seemed 'small'. The charge was laid in response to a passage from a little-read book, written by Harry and published some years previously. Lèse majesté is 'a weapon used to defend the perceived honour of Thailand's royal family', wrote Nich and Andrew. Such a crime hardly seems worth stripping a man of his freedom. Harry's pardon would seem to vindicate the idea that his was a 'small' guilt.

In The Reader, too, guilt is multi-layered, and acquires varying dimensions, depending on perspective and context. The film portrays an affair between Hanna (Kate Winslett in her Oscar winning role), a middle aged, grouchy German tram conductor, and a 15-year-old boy, Michael (David Kross).

Viewers (those who have not read Bernhard Schlink's novel, or one of the many reviews, such as this one, that contain plot spoilers) might expect a dissertation on the ethical dimensions of such an affair. However the film treads a less predictable course.

Half way through, there is a time jump, and we rediscover Michael as a young adult, some time estranged from Hanna. A law student, he attends the trial of several former SS officers charged with the commission of a horrific war crime. Michael is shocked to discover that Hanna is among the defendants.

Legally, there is no doubting Hanna's guilt. But questions regarding degrees of guilt become key.

Hanna is accused of being not merely a participant in, but the ringleader of, the crime, which led to the deaths of 300 Jewish prisoners. A document alleged to have been written in Hanna's own hand is presented as  evidence to implicate her. But Hanna is illiterate, and only Michael, unseen by Hanna in the courtroom, seems to know this.

And Hanna is too ashamed of her illiteracy to deny authorship of the document.

And so the distinction between being guilty and being responsible for the guilt of others determines Hanna's fate. In turn, the way Michael responds to his own knowledge brings guilt upon himself. Guilt is thus proven to be not only pliable but also communicable.

Following Harry Nicolaides' return to Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece from a former colleague of Harry's, which implied that Harry's commission of lèse majesté was a kind of morbid publicity stunt. That seems to be an ungracious criticism; on par with knocking the man, the moment he has regained his feet.

If there's a lesson to be learnt from The Reader, it's that those who do wrong remain human, regardless of the scale of their crime. Michael's personal atonement, as pursued during the latter part of the film, is bound up with his recognition of Hanna's humanity, despite the monster that she has been.

Harry is no monster, and, guilty or not, he should not be made a cipher for implacable moral judgment. He has suffered for his 'small guilt'. He deserves his dignity.

Harry Nicolaides on Eureka Street
2009 Oscar winners on Eureka Street

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: tim kroenret, harry nicolaides, lese majeste, thailand, kate winslett, oscar, best actress, guilt



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Existing comments

The charges were nonsense. Every royal family is an obscenity, and the members thereof should not be immune to the same levels of scrutiny and criticism to which the rest of us are subject.

Peter Downie | 25 February 2009  

A Greek-American organisation (Cyprus Action Network of America) campaigned for Mr Nicolaidis' release from a Thai jail.

Terry Steve | 25 February 2009  

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