Reader, The (United States/Germany, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Reader, The Poster

The Reader is closer to a near miss than a rousing success but, on balance, this is still worth seeing for those who enjoy complexity and moral ambiguity within the context of a melodrama. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film asks big questions about the nature of evil and how sin, like disease, can be contagious. And, while not making excuses for those who participated in the Holocaust, The Reader becomes the latest Nazi-related motion picture to question whether redemption is an option or a possibility for someone who has committed monstrous acts.

The film is told bookend style (an unnecessarily convoluted approach), with the lead character, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes as an adult; David Kross as a teenager) reflecting on his life from his current time period, which is 1995. Michael's first meeting with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) occurs in West Berlin in 1958. She is a somewhat reclusive toll taker on trams; he is a 15-year old boy coming down with Scarlet Fever. She finds him doubled over near her apartment and brings him home. After recovering from the illness, Michael seeks her out to thank her and the two begin an affair. It is brief but passionate and combines sex with episodes in which Michael reads passages of literature to her. Eventually, perhaps recognizing that she is holding Michael back, Hanna vanishes. Michael learns nothing more about her until 1966, when she goes on trial for contributing to the murder of 300 Jews while she was serving as an SS guard at Auschwitz.

For the most part, the movie is a faithful adaptation of the book when it comes to large plot points, but the devil is in the details. Subtleties and nuances that exist in the novel and which can be presented in the first-person narrative are missing from the more straightforward movie. The first 2/3 of the film is by far its strongest part. Those scenes, which catalogue the affair and the impact the revelations about Hanna's past have upon Michael, provide rich drama and pose some troubling philosophical questions. As a teenager, Michael's only interaction with Hanna was with a passionate woman who showed no hints of a dark past. The subsequent emotional cataclysm creates in Michael a sense of deep, obsessive conflict. He is torn between protecting the woman he loved and recoiling from the horror of her earlier deeds. Further complicating matters is a realization that he possesses information that could mitigate the charges and provide a lighter sentence for her.

Films that elect to present Nazis as three-dimensional characters face a thorny moral dilemma. By being too sympathetic toward such a character, there is a danger of diminishing his or her complicity in genocide. On the other side lies the potential for a caricature of evil. The Reader adeptly treads a line between the two, never excusing or denying what Hanna did but also indicating that for her, it did not define her life. For the most part, she locks away the past and lives only in the present. The movie does not rehabilitate her. In the real world, there were probably more Hannas than the demonic Nazis we are used to seeing in movies as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List. To the extent that Hanna is presented in a positive light early in the film (although it's legitimately questionable whether a woman having an affair with a 15-year old boy can be considered "positive"), this is easily explained in that the point-of-view is Michael's. Until he learns of her past, she is nothing more than his first love - the woman who taught him about sex and in whose company he spent many fondly remembered afternoons. It is also noteworthy that, while Hanna does not appear overly intelligent during the film's early scenes, the depth of her lack of education and overall ignorance do not become obvious until later.

The film, which is structured in a needlessly choppy and non-linear fashion, loses momentum and focus once it moves beyond the 1966 trial. The segments in the late '70s, '80s, and '90s lack the foundation of the early chapters. They are in the book but are given more prominence in the film than in the source material. Yes, we understand that as an adult, Michael is still obsessed with Hanna, and his obsession is not healthy, but that's about all we glean from 40 minutes worth of material. While Ralph Fiennes is a fine actor, his portion of the movie is let down by the screenplay, which causes him to drift. Most of the truly meaningful scenes with Michael are executed by David Kross, who provides an excellent portrayal of a confused teenager who grows into a conflicted young man.

Kate Winslet sheds some of her glamour for this role. When we first meet Hanna, she is in her mid-thirties. Physically, her best years are behind her, but she is still comely and Michael's attraction is understandable. As has been true throughout her career, Winslet has no qualms about nakedness. Many of her early scenes in the film are played in the nude, and there is no sense of self-consciousness from either her or Kross (who has his own full-frontal scenes, filmed shortly after the actor turned 18). As the story progresses, the makeup used to age Winslet is generally effective. Her portrayal of Hanna is note-perfect: this is precisely how one might imagine such a woman, who perhaps has never truly come to grips with the enormity of her crimes, would react under these circumstances.

In one sense, The Reader is as difficult a film as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in that both films show how the horror of Auschwitz was hidden behind a curtain of ordinariness. At one point during The Reader, one character condemns not only the likes of Hanna but the whole of the previous generation of Germans for their willful ignorance of what was happening to the Jews. This question of responsibility and culpability has left a deep scar on the collective German consciousness that even now has not healed, and there are indications of it spread throughout The Reader. So, although Stephen Daldry's (Billy Elliot) film falls short of the greatness for which it strives, it is nevertheless a workmanlike adaptation. And there is enough intelligent, compelling material here to make it worthwhile as a meditation about the post-World War II implications of the Holocaust upon the German psyche and as the tale of the tragedy suffered by one man because, at a vulnerable time of his life, he fell in love with the wrong person.

Reader, The (United States/Germany, 2008)

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin
Screenplay: David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink
Cinematography: Roger Deakins, Chris Menges
Music: Nico Muhly
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1