The Reader Revised

January, 2009, Drama

The Reader

A half dozen years ago, novelist Michael Cunningham wrote a bestseller entitled “The Hours” which British screenwriter David Hare later adapted for director Stephen Daldry. Striking both critical and box-office gold with that effort, the same writer/director team now bring Bernhard Schlink’s award-winning novel “The Reader” to the screen with the same fastidious attention to cinematic detail so evident in their previous collaboration. Schlink’s book (which I haven’t read) deals with the issues of guilt and personal responsibility for the Holocaust and the preservation of its meaning for people everywhere, especially Germans. Yet for all its technical perfection and the earnest intention to treat this serious topic in a manner appropriate to its gravity, the results are curiously arid; they have the feel of force-fed, hot-house artificially rather than the natural rhythms of a film capable of delivering the artistry this subject requires. 

The storyline traces, through flashbacks, a brief love-affair that takes place in the late 1950’s between Michael Berg, a teen-age boy suddenly taken ill on a bus and briefly cared for by Hanna Schmitz, a woman more than twice his age. After he recovers, Michael seeks her out to express his gratitude; Hanna responds by initiating a sexual relationship with him which inexplicably includes her demand that the boy read to her each time they make love. Their relationship blossoms over a single summer, then abruptly ends when Hanna disappears from Michael’s life as suddenly as she entered it.

Enrolled as a law student some years later, Michael takes a seminar conducted by Professor Rohl, (Bruno Ganz) whose course on German culpability for the Nazi régime requires his students to attend the trial of six women accused of atrocities while they were prison camp guards during WWII. Berg is stunned to discover his former lover in the dock and even more surprised when she admits to writing the official report of an incident in which she and her fellow guards permitted innocent women to die by keeping them locked in a church where they were being held prisoner even as the building burned to the ground, destroying everything and everyone in it. 

Although he has strong reason to believe Hanna has taken responsibility for something she didn’t do, he refuses to contact her or involve himself in her defense; instead, during the long years of her subsequent imprisonment he dictates and sends her tapes in which he reads the kind of books she enjoyed listening to her while they were lovers. When she responds with short, simplistic letters seeking reconciliation with him, Michael refuses to reply. It isn’t until prison authorities contact him 20 years after her conviction with the news that he’s been her sole contact with the outside world that he at last (and with great reluctance) visits her, just a few days before she’s to be released. The outcome of that visit and the repercussions which flow from it suggest that guilt comes in many guises and taking responsibility for ones actions often comes too late in life…

As an adolescent, Michael is portrayed by David Kross, a teenage actor new to American audiences who hails from a tiny community in the German state of Schleswig Holstein. But the producers chose British leading man Ralph Fiennes to play Michael as an adult and the shift to an international star like Finnes is only one of The Reader’s off-putting aspects. It’s not that Finnes isn’t an excellent actor nor that this role, which requires the kind of suppressed inner conflict he delivered so effectively in films like Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardner, isn’t equally germaine here. Rather, it’s the extent to which the film’s real focus centers on Michael’s unexplained sense of repressed shame about his relationship with Hanna and his unwillingness to come to her defense.

As Hanna, Kate Winslet appears less voluptuous than she has in previous roles, yet just as curiously out of place as her British co-star. The moody and frequently irritated manner in which she deals with the sexually bewitched Michael and the persistent emotional distance she maintains between them - - which seem so misplaced in the film’s early scenes - - make perfect sense as the history of her role during the war unfolds during the trial. But her refusal to apologize for her actions by arguing she was only following orders and her reluctance to express remorse, (“What difference would it make? The dead are still dead” is her reply to a question on this point) present a character so detached from her own emotions she’s incapable of generating either disgust or sympathy from the audience. 

The Reader’s disproportionate evaluation of the Hanna’s and Michael’s respective culpability are compounded by the subsequent revelation of the reason behind Hanna’s decision to offer no defense during her trial and imprisonment, which the film doesn’t make clear until its final moments.  Winslet delivers a competent performance of this deliberately bewildering character but the script offers such a contrived rationale for Hanna’s silence that it’s hard to understand why Winslet has been given an Oscar nomination for this role. 

The movie’s best and most credible performances are provided by Ganz as the mild-mannered but insistently questioning law professor who refuses to accept easy answers to the issue of Germany’s collective guilt for the Nazi régime and Lena Olin as Ilana Mather, the surviving daughter of one of the women Hanna allowed to burn to death. The woman refuses either to forgive Hanna’s actions or legitimize Michael’s belated admission of his role in her life with his efforts to symbolically atone for her guilt by funding a school for illiterate children. Olin delivers Ilana’s cool detachment with an understated strength that matches Ganz’s insistence on collective reflection; these all-too-brief performances provide the only hints at what this film might have been.

The Verdict? An ultimately unsatisfying examination of a subject too vast and Byzantine to be explored by its meager and unsatisfactory plot. See last year’s French A Secret instead; it deals with this subject matter far more effectively.

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