February 16, 2009
The Reader (2008)
The Holocaust, the genocide of approximately six million Jews (and other groups) during World War II by Nazi Germany, was definitely one of the most horrible acts of the armed conflict, as the systematic extermination of civil population under the justification of racial superiority is the best example of the brutality of the actions of World War II. The magnitude and complexity of this crime against humanity can be proved just by looking at how has affected the posterior generations. Certainly, the Holocaust is an event that marked its survivors and their descendants, but also one that marked the descendants of those who inflicted it. When talking about the Holocaust, it's often easy to simplify it by stating that those in command weren't really sane, but one must not forget that not everyone there were psychos, and that's the complex thing about it: normal people were also part of it. Bernhard Schlink's novel "Der Vorleser" (known in English as "The Reader") explores this subject, and is the basis for a film of the same name by director Stephen Daldry.
In post-WWII Germany, Michael Berg (David Kross) is a teenager whom one rainy day feels sick as he heads home. Vomiting and unable to continue under the rain, Michael rests in the entryway of an apartment building, where he is helped home by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a single woman much older than him. Diagnosied with scarlet fever, Michael spends days at home, but when he recovers he decides to seeks out Hanna to thank her. Fascinated by Hanna, Michael begins a secretive affair with her, making constant visits to her apartment to make love and read her. Hanna loves being read to, and so in his visits Michael reads her literary classics such as "The Odyssey", and their bond grows stronger each day, with Michael falling irrevocably in love with Hanna, despite her mood is often abusive with him. However, by reasons unknown to Michael, Hanna mysteriously disappears one day, leaving the young Michael confused and heartbroken. Eight years later Michael is a law student observing the Nazi war crime trials, and he is shocked when he finds that Hanna is a defendant in the courtroom. Her past will be a great revelation to him.
Adapted to screen by David Hare (whom also penned Daldry's previous film "The Hours"), the story chronicles the relationship between Michael and Hanna from Michael's point of view, in a non-linear structure that moves back and forth between young Michael's experiences and the effects they had on him thirty years later (where Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes). As in Bernhard Schlink's book, their relationship represents that of younger Germany with its Nazi past, and the challenge of comprehending what was going on with their society back then when it participated in one of the greatest crimes against humanity. Naturally, the themes of guilt, shame and morality play a key role in the story, as Hanna's secret is proved to be instrumental in understanding her actions. Working both as a coming-of-age story of romance and as an intense courtroom drama, "The Reader" attempts to translate the interesting questions Schlink poses regarding our understanding of the Holocaust and its perpetrators, but David Hare's screenplay at times fail to tackle its subject in a deeper sense.
Taking advantage of the script's two different yet irrevocably connected structures, director Stephen Daldry constructs his movie as Michael's slow and tragic discovery of Hanna's real character. Focusing on Michael's innocence and sensibility, Daldry makes the first part of the film to focus on the romance angle, with the development of Michael and Hanna's complex relationship and then slowly, as time advances and their relationships gets troubled, the movie switches to its real theme: the courtroom drama surrounding not only the guilt of a group of Nazi guards, but also the guilt of a generation and the way the following one judges it and lives under the previous one's shadow. To achieve this, Stephen Daldry keeps the film flowing at a nice pace, always keeping the subtlety and elegance he develops thanks to the superb work of cinematography by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, whom give the film a terrific atmosphere, specially when it contrasts the rejuvenated Germany of the new generation with the stark, grim reality of those responsible for the Holocaust.
The acting in "The Reader" is certainly one of the highlights of the film, specially the work done by the couple of David Kross and Kate Winslet. Winslet has received much acclaim for her work in the film, and not without a reason, as her performance as the apparently simple, yet extraordinarily complex Hanna Schmitz is easily one of her best (if not the best) jobs to date. Portraying a very realistic character that's at the same vulnerable and strong, Winslet makes unforgettable what could had been a stereotypical role. However, the real surprise is David Kross' work as the young Michael Berg, as he is simply perfect as the naive, innocent teenager whom is about to discover love by the hands of Hanna, but also pain. Dependant and innocent, but also egotistical and mean, the character of Michael Berg is made real with impressive talent by the young Kross. As Michael's older self, grown colder and somewhat bitter due to his experiences, Ralph Fiennes is effective, but in all honesty, nothing really amazing, as the film rests entirely on Winslet and Kross' shoulders.
Like the novel where it originated, "The Reader" is a film that poses very interesting and challenging questions, as it deals with the subject of guilt regarding the Holocaust in a very direct and straight forward manner. Questioning about how can one judge the previous generation's sins is a difficult matter, specially when the sin in question is something as incomprehensible as the Holocaust, and the entire society of the time (perhaps not only the German one) has its fair share of guilt on the subject (wheter they admit it or not). Schlink's novel makes for an interesting meditation on this, but personally I find that Stephen Daldry's film fails at doing the same. As written above, the problem I see is that David Hare's screenplay is a bit too shallow on its take on the subject, and the subsequent revelations of Hanna's past seem to take the backseat in front of her risky relationship with young Michael. This makes for a terribly weak final act as filmmaker Daldry seems to prefer the premise of the boy traumatized by his ill-fated romance with an older woman.
Perhaps this may sound a bit harsher than intended, but that's because in my opinion, the film feels like a romance drama that attempts to go beyond the norm by posing challenging questions about a very interesting subject, only to end up preferring to remain a tragic romance drama after all. However, by no means take that statement as an equivalent to saying that "The Reader" is a bad film, because it's definitely not. Daldry's movie is a well crafted story of multiple layers crowned by two remarkable performances and an excellent work of cinematography. It's just disappointing that it's take on the subject wasn't as deep as it could had been. But perhaps that just me nitpicking.