CAPSULE: In the 1950s a German teenager has an affair with an older woman. Later, when the woman is on trial for wartime crimes, her former lover realizes that she has a secret shame than runs deeper than that of the crimes of which she is accused. Revealing the secret would lessen her punishment. This is a powerful drama touching on German guilt and responsibility, but also about a humiliation is greater still and shapes a woman's life. Kate Winslet reveals herself to be a much more versatile actress than we could have suspected before. Stephen Daldry directs a screenplay by David Hare based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
(It is impossible to discuss this film without revealing an important plot twist. There are minor spoilers throughout and a spoiler paragraph after the main review.)
The story is told mostly in flashback as a lawyer Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes) thinks about his life. In the late 1950s a teenage Michael (David Kross) becomes very ill and takes refuge by the door of what turns out to be a tram conductor, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). She shows him some kindness and he becomes obsessed with her. The relationship blooms into passion, explicitly portrayed. But she chooses a peculiar sort of foreplay. She wants her lover to read aloud to her. Having people read to her becomes an obsession. The desire for readers goes the very core of who she is. Eight years later Michael's path crosses Hanna's again. Hanna is on trial for her crimes as an SS guard at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Michael will make a deduction that casts all of Hanna's strange behavior in a new light. Michael may be the main character, but the viewer's eye throughout is on Hanna. In spite of the leads being played by two good actors, Michael is a character we have seen before and who in the first two of the three sections of this film is more acted upon than he is acting. The film seems intended to be about Michael and a moral decision that he is forced to make. But Hanna pulls our attention so strongly that what should be the central moral issue is just demoted to a plot turn. The film as it was made is now really about Hanna and how she could be the person that she is. Her character cannot elicit much sympathy from the audience, but she can come to be understood.
Acting honors have to go to Kate Winslet. Even in a year in which she is being touted for her acting in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD her Academy Award nomination is for this film, and for once I agree with the Academy voters. She not only has to convincingly play a German woman (okay, she does it in English with a German accent), but she has to play the woman as she ages over several decades and is uniformly credible at each age. The film also has Bruno Ganz as a law professor. Ganz may be the best actor that Germany has had since it lost Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. Ralph Fiennes is quietly professional as a man totally bottled up within himself. He is completely believable, but his role is just not very compelling. Perhaps the same can be said of David Kross playing the same character at a younger age. Lina Olin is along in a double role as mother and daughter involved in the trial.
One touch that we have not seen much before is the ferocity with which the generation after the war turned against their parents' generation. They see the Holocaust as a crime against their own country and want to disassociate themselves violently from their parents' actions. Films like ZENTROPA dramatize the undercurrent of secret loyalty to the principles of the Third Reich after the war. This film shows us that much of the next German generation turned on an older Germans who could commit such brutal crimes.
At heart what makes the film powerful is Winslet in so strong a performance and so totally different from anything she has done in the past. I rate THE READER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Somehow there is an uneasy feeling about the point of view of this film. Much of the point of the film is that Hanna is treated unjustly by the system of war crimes justice. And while we are watching the film we feel for her. Because we have come to know her we feel that she deserves a lighter punishment. But at the same time she is getting a lenient punishment for her actual actions. The implication is that if others get punishment that is lighter than they deserve, she should also get a punishment that is too light. At heart this film is about a case of sympathy for the devil.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0976051/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/10009498-reader/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper