A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 123 mins.
2008, R, 123 mins.
Hanna Schmitz: Kate Winslet / Michael (adult): Ralph Fiennes
/ Michael (teen): David Kross / Rose/Ilana: Lena Olin /
Professor Rohl: Bruno Ganz
I find it difficult to discuss THE READER in any level of discernable detail without revealing specific aspects of its plot that may be too revealing to those that have not see it, so consider this review one with SPOILERS.
Exactly how am I supposed to feel about THE READER?
Good question. Here’s a film that plunders into some seriously risky thematic waters that involves one of history’s most despicable calamities and, in the end, I am not sure the makers had any real clue as to how viewers are supposed to react to and perceive the characters and their respective actions. Few films have been so impeccably acted, consummately directed, and involving only to leave me feeling that the entire enterprise was glib, somewhat naïve, slight, and distasteful.
THE READER is a very thorny combination of soft-core eroticism and
the horrors of the Holocaust…and not necessarily a convincingly
left the theatre with a disagreeable taste in my mouth, made all the more
unpleasant because this is a well made film that seems to tuck the tragedy
of Hitler’s “Final Solution” under the rug of what is, at face
value, a 15-year-old’s male pornographic fantasy.
am not alone. Many critics
have seen director Stephen Daldry’s and writer David Hare’s (who both
collaborated on THE HOURS) as a film that is a lurid sex flick that is
disguised as a sermon about how illiteracy can absolve a person’s
horrible past indiscretions. THE READER is based on a very controversial best selling 1995
novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink that concerned the tale of a
15-year-old West German boy who, in 1958, had a torrid and steamy sexual
fling with a 35-year-old train conductor. Years later the
lad – while in law school – learns that the woman was a chief Nazi
operative and guard at Auschwitz, who had a role in the extermination of
hundreds of Jewish people. While
on trial the lad indirectly uncovers that his former lover was and still
is illiterate, but she takes the burden of guilt in the proceedings for
writing a memo that gave the go-ahead to a particular horrific plot to
kill hundreds of Jewish women.
the problem: Does this film
want me to come to an understanding with this evil German woman?
Am I supposed to feel some level of pity, remorse, or sensation of
forgiveness for this person? Here
is a woman that is edging up to her forties and disturbingly seduces a
young teen - that,
by current legal definitions, is a minor - and then we discover was
actually a willing culprit in The Holocaust.
The sexual material of the film is unsavory enough (imagine, if
you will, how people would respond if the gender roles were reversed and
the Nazi was a mid thirties male and the youth was a mid-teen girl – I
think that the reaction from viewers would be that much more appalling),
but the way the film seems to subtly suggest that this woman deserves some level of redemption is kind of unpardonable.
Granted, this is never ostensibly spelled out to viewers, by the
way Daldry and Hare let it quietly slip through is to its discredit.
Essentially, the film exploits history’s single greatest tragedy
for the expense of telling a seedy and somewhat sickening story about how
an older seductress tempts an adolescent into bed with her. How can anyone ever muster enough understanding for a person
that both worked under the most infamous and murderous dictator ever and committed acts that would be now
considered statutory rape? THE
READER seems to, in my mind, ask viewers for a discrete level of
the woman…which is impossible under the circumstances.
film’s script is also awkwardly assembled, told with a both bookended
style that involves the story shifting in and our of various time periods,
and never in a very fluent or decipherable manner.
In 1995 we are introduced to a lawyer named Michael Berg (the great
Ralph Fiennes) that begins an inquisitive reflection of his life from a
period in 1958 to the present. The
film shifts back to the earliest mentioned time when the 15-year-old
Michael (played by David Kross, very good) has a chance meeting with a
much older and attractive 35-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in West
Germany. When the pair meet
he is gravely ill with Scarlet Fever and she works as a toll
operator…and also seems very guarded and reclusive.
For some inexplicable reason (there is never a fully developed
rationale for her choice), Hanna decides to take the lad home with her to
mend him to health.
does most of his recovering back home over the course of the next few months,
but when fully recovered he decides to pay Hanna a visit to offer her both
flowers and a heartfelt thank-you. Soon
afterwards, Michael is getting out of her bathtub (don’t ask for
particulars) and Hanna
comes up from behind the boy and removes her clothes.
They then make love and begin their sweltering affair.
Unfortunately for the film, the creepiness factor of Hanna’s
seduction drains out all of the would-be eroticism throughout the rest of
like LAST TANGO IN PARIS, both Hanna and Michael have several more sexual
meetings in her apartment, without disclosing their names, backgrounds,
and so forth. Inevitably,
both let down their guards and reveal to each other tiny details about
their lives, albeit with much more secrecy on Hanna’s part.
The pair develop a sort of system to their flings, which involves Michael reading to her all of the literary
works that he is studying in school which is either accompanied or
preceding by having sex. He passionately reads works as far ranching as THE ODYSSEY,
THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG, and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
Curiously, Michael offers her books on many occasions to read, but
she refuses. Part of the
film’s shoddy manipulation is how Michael lacks any level of foresight
to ever ask Hanna whether she can read or not…but I digress.
when things are proceeding well for the couple, Hanna begins to have
doubts that she is holding the boy back in some way.
She abruptly absconds from the fling and vanishes out of
Michael’s life. The
heart-broken Michael eventually resumes his scholastic life and the film
flash-forwards to 1966 where we see him attending Heidelberg Law School.
As part of a special seminar taught by
a Holocaust camp survivor, Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz,
brilliantly soft-spoken and prideful in his small and delicate performance),
who decides to take his enterprising students to a
war trial of several SS female guards that are accused of letting 300
women die in a burning church following the evacuation of Auschwitz.
To Michael’s horror, Hanna is one of the key defendants.
During the trial she steadfastly denies that she penned the order
to kill the woman (despite her participation), but then relents and admits
guilt, which culminates in Michael finally realizing that she is
functionally illiterate and could not have been the writer.
Michael, dealing with all of his pent up guilt, struggles with
whether to reveal his intimate knowledge of Hanna’s condition to the
courts, but ultimately he does not and she gets life in prison.
there have been questions posed by many as to whether THE READER excuses
or denies Hanna’s involvement in the SS or whether we should diminish
her complicity in genocide. The
really beguiling aspect of the film is why the script would go to the
trouble of making Hanna illiterate in the first place.
The only valid rationale to this would be to inflect a
preponderance – however subtle – of compassion for the woman.
For Michael, the revelation of Hanna’s past does create some
emotional demons for him, but it’s strange how it takes him time to
realize what a monster she became. The film has a unnecessary sequence where Michael treks
through the remains of a concentration camp and gas chambers, as if to
allow for him to fully comprehend how what a ruthless woman Hanna is…but
the memories and understanding of the Holocaust should have inspired
enough of an understanding in him. Regardless,
Michael still remains unhealthily fixated with Hanna and, even well into
adulthood, he makes attempts to rehabilitate her through, I’m guessing,
the power of literature.
woman is beyond redemption, isn’t she?
There is no denying that she engaged in morally questionable
behaviour seducing Michael as a teen, especially at a time when he was
sexually inexperienced and immature, not to mention that she was a
murderous Nazi. It’s here
where the film’s dramatic detachment left me somewhat disturbed.
Does the film ponder the notion that literacy and embracing it is a
valid form of redemption for a person committing acts of genocide?
The way THE READER poses that question and then gives a
disingenuous and misguided answers implodes it: The truly sad part of the
film is that, in the end, Michael is a tormented figure because he takes
great pains to find understanding for a woman that is beyond his
compassion for her, whereas Hanna, as she reaches the winter of her
life, does not seem to care at all about her past actions.
At one point late in the film, where the elderly Hanna reunites
with Michael, she coldly and despondently states, “It
doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what I feel. The dead are
Beyond the film’s remote
and emotionally disquieting handling of the material, THE READER’S script
is chaotically choppy and needlessly non-linear (this is one of the rare
times where traditional linear storytelling would have been an asset).
The film frequently fumbles and trudges through segments that
discordantly interweaves from periods between the 50’s and 90’s, often without much thought.
Then there is some head-shaking moments of incredulity with
the chronology: at one point in the late sixties Michael is played by
David Kross as a man in his early twenties and then – a mere ten years
later - the film has the near 50-year-old Fiennes playing the character.
Fiennes is an accomplished actor, to be sure, and his performance
as the elder Michael is effectively cold, detached, and sadly melancholic,
but it’s never once believable to see Kross plausibly morph into the
form of Fiennes in ten years.
Alas, most of the
performances are thanklessly great, despite the troublesome handling of
the material. Fiennes, as
stated, is brings an understated pathos to his part, as is David Kross,
who has the most difficult task in the film playing the younger version of
the character that is desperately trying to make sense out of an
impossible complicated situation. Kate
Winslet, one of our most fearless and sophisticated of actresses, is
generally very strong as Hanna, even despite the fact that she remains
more of a curiously abstract persona than a real flesh and blood
person in the film. Perhaps
Lena Olin - who occupies THE READER’s single most memorable and moving
scene where she plays a Holocaust survivor, living in New York - provides
the best performance in the film that Michael confronts.
The way she so quietly, without any hysterical and camera mugging
theatrics, chastises Michael for his attempts at finding ways to
comprehend Hanna is gut-wrenching. In a way, Olin’s prideful and deeply wounded character
seems like the voice of reason in THE READER.
She, like most on the audience, seems objectionably insulted by
Michael’s effort to come to a level of understanding with Hanna.
THE READER, it has been said,
was the one film that apparently tipped the scales in favor of
excluding THE DARK KNIGHT from nominations in BEST PICTURE, DIRECTOR, and
SCREENPLAY at this year's recently revealed Oscar ballots, which is a disagreeable shame.
Yes, the film is magnificently performed and Daldry is a director
that knows how to build intrigue during quieter moments of
introspection. However, in the end, THE READER emerges as a tedious, sometimes odious, and
fiendishly misguided Holocaust drama that has Oscar bait written all over
it. Lamentably, the film’s
troubling approach at suggesting that viewers should identify with a
social deviant and political monster usurps any level of worthy dramatic
payoff. The experience of
seeing the film left me feeling hollow.
Perhaps Kate Winslet herself
best ruminated on why films like this get multiple nominations.
I was reminded of her extremely funny cameo on Ricky Gervais’
brilliant satire of the movie business, EXTRAS, which had the actress
playing a nun in a Holocaust-themed film.
In-between takes her character stated, “If you do a film about The
Holocaust, you’re guaranteed a Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times.
Never won. SCHINDLER'S
bloody LIST? The PIANIST?
Oscars coming out of their arse.”
Hmmm…she’s on to