A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE READER jj

2008, R, 123 mins.

Hanna Schmitz: Kate Winslet / Michael (adult): Ralph Fiennes / Michael (teen): David Kross / Rose/Ilana: Lena Olin / Professor Rohl: Bruno Ganz

Directed by Stephen Daldry / Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink.

 

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 appropriate hybrid.   I 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. 

I am not alone.  Many critics have seen director Stephen Daldry’s and writer David Hare’s (who both last 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. 

Here’s 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 compassion for the woman…which is impossible under the circumstances. 

The 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.  

Michael 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 the story. 

Much 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. 

Just 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. 

Now, 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. 

Yet…this 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 still dead.” 

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 something. 

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