Hey kids. Hans here pinch-hitting for Shep on our DVD recommendation, giving you a glimpse into The Reader, one of this year’s best films.
In the winter of 1958, Michael Berg (David Kross) is fifteen years old. One day, coming home on a Berlin trolley car, he feels ill and steps to the street. After throwing up in a dark alley, he encounters a woman (Kate Winslet) who cleans him up and takes him home. After being quarantined with scarlet fever for three months, he returns to find the woman and repay her kindness. She is withdrawn and surly, but curious about the innocent who has come back to find her.
Her curiosity soon finds a sexual grounding, as the two begin a torrid affair. Michael rushes from school each day to her apartment for the next session, which is often preceded by a long stretch where he reads to the woman, who is named Hannah. The relationship becomes more than just a casual fling–Michael, who has never been with a woman, develops a profound connection, and Hannah who, we sense, is damaged by something in her past, grows in affection for the young man she refers to as “kid.” Then, one day, the affair ends, as Hannah leaves Berlin and gives Michael no explanation.
Then, in 1964, Michael re-encounters Hannah. Now a law student, he is taken to a trial of women who were guards at Auschwitz, and Hannah is one of them. There are charges levelled against her, by the authorities and her fellow defendants, that she allowed guards to stand by while 300 Jewish prisoners were burned alive in a church and then wrote the report covering it up. Hannah could not have written the report, and Michael knows why. Hannah won’t allow herself to admit to the secret she has so long held, and Michael can’t bring himself to help someone that he once loved but now knows has done awful things.
Such is the setup for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, a film of great depth and power. It generated a great deal of critical acclaim and awards consideration, winning Winslet her long awaited first Oscar. But the film was also lambasted as awards pandering, with many comfortable looking at it as just another Holocaust movie, dealing irresponsibly with its subject in interest of garnering critical prestige. I thought the film was a welcome arrival in the dialogue about the Holocaust, dealing not so much with the tragedy itself, but with the guilt that pervaded the second generation of Germans who grew up after it.
Screenwriter David Hare, working from the novel by Bernard Schlink, juxtaposes young Michael’s story with the grief of an older Michael (Ralph Fiennes), now a successful lawyer but emotionally distanced from his family and loved ones. He walks through his life in a haze of despair, unable to come to grips with the connection he felt to someone who did such horrible things, unwilling to reveal it to anyone around him. It is in the older Michael that the film finds its emotional core; is he wrong to have loved someone such as Hannah? Does that love compromise his own morality?
Young Michael mirrors the same struggle, as he possesses knowledge that could affect Hannah’s sentencing, but would stay uninvolved rather than assist a known killer. The film is perceptive to set up the young Michael up as someone who, quite possibly, hadn’t contemplated the horrors of the Holocaust before coming face to face with them. In one beautifully executed sequence, he visits a concentration camp and wanders its desolate grounds and buildings. He walks through old shower rooms and, in one powerful, affecting shot, down a walkway lined with cages full of shoes left by the victims (probably contrived by the production designer, but a beautiful metaphor nonetheless). The camp’s ghostly silence pervades his guilt–how can I help someone who participated in this?
It has been long discussed that the Holocaust largely happened by Germans participating in the tragedy as the equivalent of desensitized factory workers. Death was the product they were supposed to churn out and citizens like Hannah obliged in fulfilling the task. Daldry and Hare acknowledge this but, smartly, don’t make it the core of The Reader–books like Eichmann in Jerusalem and films like The Grey Zone have already treaded these waters. Where the filmmakers do succeed is in allowing this mundaneness to create a sense of unknowability about the tragedy’s meaning. The older Michael shares an encounter with Hannah, now old, late in the film where he asks her if she has spent time thinking about the past. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” she tells him, “the dead are still dead.”
There is another moment where older Michael visits a survivor (Lena Olin), who tells him “if you want catharsis, don’t go to the camps.” The film takes place in the cold space after the violence has ended, but the violence itself is left without any real meaning. Ultimately, all that Michael can do is acknowledge is connection to it in order to reconcile his grief. The cure itself comes in the telling, which we see in the film’s last scene.
Daldry and Hare execute this story with profound sincerity and fairness. They understand its complexity and are careful not to paint any one character as an easy villain. They produce a film that is contemplative and useful in dialogue about the tragedy.
They owe a great deal to their actors. Winslet, one of the most daring and compelling of actresses, deserved her Oscar; she creates a mysterious, emotionally distant character in early scenes and contrasts this with a confused volatility when Hannah is on the stand defending her crimes. Her work in these scenes–the confusion of being confronted with death that she had never contemplated the horror of–is some of the best I have seen in recent film.
Ralph Fiennes is well cast and used adeptly by Daldry as older Michael, distilling the character’s anguish beautifully and acting as the film’s moral compass. I was very impressed with the work of David Kross as his young counterpart. It can’t be easy to carry a film of this scale, but Kross handles it amazingly. A young German actor who didn’t know English before he got the part, Kross shows great command of his character, executing it with realism and intelligence.
I would say check this film out as early as you can. You will not be disappointed. The DVD release itself is pretty sweet if you like the movie: it contains a 23 minute making of, a conversation between Stephen Daldry and David Kross about the nature of their collaboration, and, amusingly, a ten minute feature about Kate Winslet’s makeup process. If you are interested in that stuff, check out the last one. Winslet is really cheeky and a lot of fun, and makes what is usually droll and boring kind of interesting.
Buy The Reader on DVD HERE.