Friday, February 5, 2016
(December 2008, U.S.)
THE READER, based on the 1995 German semi-autobiographical best seller by Bernhard Schlink (I haven't read it), is a thought-provoking wartime, romantic drama to be taken with a respectable degree of seriousness and integrity. So you'll kindly forgive me for starting out my post by cheapening it somewhat by first mentioning that Kate Winslet appears naked in the film; not just briefly, but for some extended moments...
Sorry, but I'm a guy...and as a guy with strong heterosexual tendencies, I enjoy my more-than-fair share of tits and ass whenever I can get it...particularly if it's Kate Winslet, who, in my opinion, has still got it!
Okay, so now back to serious cinema! THE READER might have easily slipped past me if my mother in-law had not sung its praises when she saw it in the theater almost eight years ago. I was prepared for merely a simple love story between older woman and younger man, but what I got was a much more surprising tale of intrigue and twists. The film tells the story of Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes as an adult), a German lawyer who as a teenager in the 1950s had an affair with Hannah Schmitz (Winslet), a train conductor who helped him home one day when he's sick. Upon his recovery from Scarlet Fever, he visits her where he's immediately seduced by her and they begin their summer long affair. While she appears to be in it for the excitement of just getting laid, he seeks a more emotional connection with her. They eventually find that connection in books when she asks him to read to her whenever they're finished making love. However, just when we may think things may get more serious between the two of them, she abruptly leaves town upon learning of her promotion at work withing informing Michael.
Cut to years later when Michael is attending law school. As part of a class seminar, the students observe a trial of several German women accused of letting hundreds of Jewish women die in a burning church when they were Nazi SS guards of a concentration camp near Krakow. We are stunned to learn that Michael's beloved and long-lost Hanna is one of those defendants. This is a startling revelation, to be sure, but it only seems to scratch the surface of Hannah's secrets. Through the course of the trial, we come to realize that Hannah is illiterate and grossly ashamed of that fact. As a result, rather than confess her illiteracy, she chooses to take the burden of the accusations by claiming she was primarily responsible for generating a report that ultimately condemned the Jewish women to death; something we know cannot be true because she cannot read and write. Although she is a former Nazi and deserves the burdens of justice, their is a strong consumption of irony present in us (and Michael) knowing of her situation and that she cannot possibly be fully blamed for what happened. Still, secrets are often kept hidden deep enough to affect outcomes in storytelling, and it's this secret that will send Hannah to prison for decades while the other women merely get a slap on the wrist with only a few years in prison. The ironic twist of THE READER is relatively simple here, and yet it's strong enough to have us scratching our heads and wondering how it can ultimately affect so many lives; Michael's, as well as Hanna's. We even ask ourselves how we, as the viewer, managed to miss all the hints and clues given to us throughout the film, i.e. Hannah refusing to read from Michael's books, the lost look on her face when confronted with a lunch menu, etc.
As a man forever changed (and perhaps even scarred) by his involvement with Hannah, Michael struggles not only with the actions of her past, but with his own soul and how he's been unable to open up to those he loves ever since knowing Hannah. As a man of compassion, he longs to help Hannah in her later prison years by sending her tapes he's recorded of every book he owns, which she, in turn, uses to teach herself to read. Yet despite his empathy for her, he cannot bring himself to reconnect with her on a level of commitment when she's finally due to be released from prison and will require someone to take responsibility for her. We know he'll always have a special connection with, but cannot allow her into his life because of her crimes against humanity. This decision results in a tragic end for Hannah (which I won't give away now). Tragic, or not, we are constantly meant to remind ourselves that she was a member of the Nazi Party, and such compassion for those people are extremely limited, at best.
THE READER is a highly engrossing and deeply emotional experience of not only a disturbing tale of the Holocaust and its horrors, but also fills us with a certain degree of pity that demands our attention, whether it feels justified or not. Kate Winslet can only be praised for an outstanding, powerful performance of a woman who, despite her destiny of punishment, we've also come to appreciate and possibly understand her fears and anxieties of illiteracy. Whether such understanding is deserved or even seems valid is entirely up to the viewer. Ralph Fiennes, though quiet and reserved, express the sorrows and regrets of his past with perfection. David Kross as a young Michael is a purely sympathetic character of teenage angst and confusion over love, sexual desire and the emotional connection to a woman, good or bad, who changed his life forever. And while SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE may have won the Oscar for best picture of 2008 (I didn't like it!), it should have been THE READER, in my opinion!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Michael Berg: "I didn't mean to upset you."
Hanna Schmitz: "You don't have the power to upset me! You don't matter enough to upset me!"