Director : Stephen Daldry
Screenplay : David Hare (based on the novel Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (Young Michael Berg), Lena Olin (Rose Mather / Ilana Mather), Bruno Ganz (Professor Rohl), Burghart Klaußner (Judge)
Warning: This review contains some minor spoilers. Proceed at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film.
The Reader reunites director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare, who last collaborated on The Hours, and it proves to be every bit as plodding and earnestly morose as that film, albeit this time with the heft of historical atrocity rather than just the dead weight of social conformity to help sustain its characters’ various neuroses. In adapting the Oprah-approved, bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink, Hare has taken another page from The Hours by fracturing the novel’s linear storyline into a temporally criss-crossing narrative structure that creates the illusion of more depth than is actually there.
The film opens in Berlin in 1995 with Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a glum lawyer whose brusque shuttling of his latest sexual conquest out the door is the first clue to his emotional distance. We then go back nearly 40 years to Michael as a 15-year-old schoolboy (played by David Kross) who, after getting sick on a tram with the beginnings of scarlet fever, is helped home by a rather homely thirtysomething named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). When Michael returns to thank her several months later, she catches him sneaking a peak at her while dressing, and by his next visit they are both naked, with the seemingly remote older woman giving the eager “kid,” as she calls him, a crash course in all things carnal. Their affair stretches across an idyllic summer, mixing heady lovemaking with Michael reading to Hanna from various literary classics. Then, one day, Hanna is given a promotion from tram ticket taker to working in the office, and she packs up and disappears.
This, not surprisingly, deals a strong blow to Michael’s adolescent love-infused heart, and when we next see him in 1966 he is a morose, chain-smoking law student. His professor (Bruno Ganz) arranges for him and several classmates to attend a series of Nazi war crime trials, and on the first day he recognizes the voice of one of the accused as Hanna’s. As it turns out, she is on trial with five other women for their role as SS guards, specifically for allowing 300 Jews to burn to death during a death march to Auschwitz. Michael is agonized to see this, but his agony is extended even further when he realizes that Hanna is illiterate, something she refuses to admit even though it could drastically reduce her prison sentence. Michael could intervene in the trial and testify that Hanna is illiterate, yet he stays silent. In this way, his own personal guilt is intermixed with the larger sense of historical guilt that is laid across the film with such broad, heavy strokes, thus pointing the finger at us all: We are all guilty, the only question is, of what?
The key to The Reader, and why it ultimately doesn’t work, is the character of Hanna. She is a complex character, to be sure: a woman who worked for the SS and was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) of innocent lives and never once recants or even displays much in the way of remorse. When confronted late in the film by Michael and asked what she has learned from her years in prison, she tells him she has learned something important, but it has nothing to do with the role she played in one of the worst human atrocities in recorded history. However, one could argue that her culpability in the Holocaust was a direct result of her being relatively simple-minded and lacking in education. This is suggested most directly by her inability to read, be we also see it during the trial sequence when she is constantly bewildered by the actions of those with whom she stands accused. She is, for all intents and purposes, unable to discern the enormity of what she has done because she was simply doing what she had been told. We like to think that our moral compass is somehow distinct from our IQ, but anyone who has worked with prisoners will tell you that’s not the case: Vulnerability often leads to victimizing as much as it does to being victimized.
As provocative as that idea is, Daldry and Hare fumble it early in their depiction of Michael and Hanna’s sexual relationship, which is depicted with plenty of heat, but of the cliché art-house variety that always equates frank nudity with emotional honesty. These early sequences needed delicacy and subtlety and a sense of real human fragility, but instead they come across like a teenage male fantasy, with Hanna playing the cougar in frumpy clothing and Michael the awkward kid whose carnal experiences (which Hanna boldly provokes) transform him immediately into a sexual magnet. Despite impressively honest and (literally) naked performances by Kate Winslet and David Kross, the film’s first act focuses too much on the physical heat and too little on the myriad complexities of emotional trauma that feed them, which makes Hanna’s emotional distancing of herself from Michael feel more like well-practiced manipulation, rather than the bewildered need to protect herself that it is surely intended to be. Thus, when halfway through the film we are suddenly expected to sympathize with Hanna despite her horrific past, it feels forced and, quite possibly, morally duplicitous, which taints the film as a whole and keeps even its strongest emotions at arm’s length.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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