' ' Cinema Romantico: The Reader

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Reader

There were many aspects of this film, based on the noted book by Bernhard Schlink and directed here by Stephen Daldry, that had held an awesome sway over me. It is an epic movie, stretching from the 50's in post-WWII Germany all the way to the mid-90's, that knows the power a woman known for only a few months can hold over a lifetime and how art can transform and redeem. Oh, yes, the holocaust is addressed, too.

After a momentary present day passage we flash back to a teenage German boy Michael (David Kross) in the 50's coincidentally winding up in an affair with the older Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a ticket taker on a trolley. (Yes, it's coincidence. Damn near all movie romances began via coincidence.) It is an affair that is most decidedly about sex but quickly becomes about something more - reading. Michael is always being assigned new books and stories to read in class and since these sexual encounters occur after school lets out he brings his books with him. She wants him to read to her. He does. Constantly, endlessly. These reading sessions consume both of them. He ignores everyone and everything else. But one day, not long after Hannah has earned a promotion at work, he turns up at her apartment to find it empty. She is gone without having left even a slightest trace.

Several years later Michael is in law school and his professor (Bruno Ganz) takes he and his classmates to the trial of several former Nazi prison guards for murder. As fate would have it, one of these guards is Hannah. As the trial proceeds Michael comes to realize something vital, something that could assist Hannah in her case, and debates offering the information. I will leave it to you to discover whether or not he does.

More years pass and we are re-introduced to Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael, a divorced man with a daughter, still cut off emotionally from everyone around him, except, it seems, for Hannah, for whom he still harbors feelings and with whom he finds a way to re-connect. Sort of. Can he forgive her?

The performances, to begin, are exemplary. After my post last week I should probably have to excuse myself from the room when discussing Ms. Winslet but, yeah, that's not gonna' happen. She's fantastic, as usual. It is quite clear why she was offered the role. Few actresses are so willing to be naked (literally and figuratively) on camera. But she keeps the passion in the early scenes at a cool, key removal. You always sense she is hiding something. Yet, there are moments when you can also see her trying to reclaim a life that inevitably must have been taken away once she joined the Nazi league. More on her in a minute.

Despite this being his first film Kross is convincing. He shows youthful, clueless exuberance early and makes a real transformation to a weary, guilty collegiate self. Fiennes, too, plays his role as required. He is quiet. Fragile. He has never really gotten over those early events of his life.

The film, as you may or may not know, has not been treated too kindly by most critics and by no means is it perfect. In particular, the middle passages, set in the law school classroom, are weak. In these moments Daldry and his screenwriter David Hare seem to be trying to offer a morality play, pointedly, obviously. In fact, every sentence spoken by Ganz's professor, I think, ended with the words "...of/about what?" As in, "you're scared of what?" "You're angry about what?" "You're disappointed about what?" Do law school professors spend a great deal of time asking questions? Probably. But here it is merely an excuse to allow the students to expound on the rights and wrongs of the holocaust that we have been over many times in movies and books past.

For most of its running time, however, the film itself does not take sides, and when it does not is when it is at its finest. One utterly brilliant strategy of "The Reader" is to make Hannah Schmitz real without sympathizing. If there was a flaw in Spielberg's "Schindler's List" I always felt it was focusing on a villain (played by Ralph Fiennes) who was so insistently insane. Wouldn't it have been more powerful to use a person who was just doing his duty? This is where Winslet's work becomes extremely important. She never plays the part as a saint. Never. In the courtroom she attempts to explain why she did what she did and, no doubt, many Nazis in the concentration camps were acting for the same reasons but she does not cry out for absolution. (I don't think Hannah's "reveal" functions as an excuse, either. She is shamed by it but if it was an excuse wouldn't she have used it herself?) This clearly is not a sentiment meant for casual moviegoing on a Saturday afternoon. This is heavy stuff. But it's important because it's true. Of course, it is. Nazis weren't all sadistic and mentally unstable like Amon Goth.

So, too, than is the acting by Kross and Fiennes in this regard important. They are both clearly aware of the moral boundries crossed by Hannah and the character of Michael is never searching for her salvation, as shown in a crucical encounter late in the movie with a woman played by Lena Olin. But the movie also makes it clear that in spite of her dark past Michael still feels something for her, very deep and very true. He cannot let go of it. How could he? How could she? The sequences in which they re-connect (which allows Winslet to get into the old lady makeup) are sublime and moving. These are two distant people who have only ever felt really connected, I think, to one person in their lives - each other. Sins of the past or not, this is impossible to shake.

That's the movie's argument. At least, that is what I came out of the movie feeling. "The Reader" does not feverishly spend its time trying to humanize Hannah. It lets her be a human.


Mette said...

Hi, I just found your blog through LAMB... Your review is splendid, and I think you mentioned all the important sides of the film without spoiling it to someone who hasn't seen it yet. If haven't read the novel yet, I can highly recommend it, as it is much better than the film (which I also liked, though).
By the way: this wasn't David Kross's first role, he's been in the German films "Knallhart" and "Same Same But Different" before - I've only seen the latter, and it's wonderful.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you. I appreciate it. You know, I still haven't the read book. Several friends recommended that I do at the time the film came out when I was raving about it. I really do need to get on that.

Thanks so much for stopping by!