The Reader

I went to see The Reader tonight. Oscar nominations include Kate Winslett for actress in a leading role; Chris Menges and Roger Deakins for cinematography; David Hare for his screenplay; Stephen Daldry for directing; and a nod for best picture.

In brief, I would describe the movie as gripping, intense, and thought-provoking. It certainly isn’t a feel-good movie; nonetheless, highly recommended.

The movie has three segments. In the first segment, we are introduced to the lead characters:  Hanna (Kate Winslett) and Michael (David Kross plays the teenaged Michael; Ralph Fiennes, the adult).

They begin an unlikely sexual affair:  unlikely because Michael is 15 and Hanna is in her late 30s — clearly old enough to be Michael’s mother.

Michael’s motivation is straightforward enough. It’s easy to understand the attraction to a young man, unsure of himself, of an older, experienced woman who is willing to introduce him to a smorgasbord of pleasures of the flesh.

Hanna’s motivation is less obvious; or maybe it’s just less obvious to me because I’m a guy. An older woman certainly might be turned on by a younger man’s body. Moreover, she might enjoy playing a role that is equal parts lover and teacher. “Slowly, slowly,” Hanna says to Michael in response to his first, overly zealous kiss.

There is a second quirk to the relationship:  Hanna likes it when Michael reads to her. Indeed, it soon becomes their foreplay. He reads for a while, and then they have sex.

“Slowly, slowly,” indeed.

Kate Winslett

This first segment of the movie is interesting in its own right:  sexy and even poignant at times. (The relationship is doomed from the outset because Hanna and Michael are at such different stages in life.) But the sexual affair is merely a prelude to the real point of the movie. The story really takes off in Act II, when it radically shifts tone.

(I discuss more details about the plot after the jump. This isn’t quite a spoiler alert, since I don’t give away the ending of the movie. But you might prefer to let the movie unfold the details of the story instead of reading about it here.)

The sexual relationship ends. Several years pass; Michael is now a law student. World War II has taken place in the intervening years and — though I haven’t mentioned it until now — the movie is set in Germany.

Michael discovers, to his shock and horror, that Hanna has served as a guard at a prison camp which was a satellite to Auschwitz. She personally selected women and girls to be sent to Auschwitz, knowing that they would die there.

I can’t help but wonder:  what would a Jewish viewer (Jack, for example) think of this part of the movie? I ask because Hanna is portrayed rather sympathetically. Other characters in the movie see her as unambiguously evil; and Michael agonizes terribly over the enormity of Hanna’s crimes; but the viewer is led to wonder whether the moral issue is really so black and white.

The movie is based on a book by German author Bernhard Schlink. It explores a profoundly disturbing topic that Germans are only now beginning to grapple with:  to what extent did the average German citizen of the 30s and early 40s share in the guilt of the Nazi government? After all, the Nazis were elected and enabled by millions of voters and workers — ordinary men and women, complicit in a profound evil.

Each of us inhabits a moral framework that is outside of our control — a framework which is established by society as an aggregate. This is the core insight of postmodernism:  the notion that each person inhabits such a framework, and acts according to a set of values that seems appropriate from within that paradigm. Hence the difficulty we have in understanding one another, and in reaching agreement even on issues that would seem to be fact-based and unambiguous.

Hanna is from Venus, and Michael from Mars — but not in the superficial sense posited by John Gray in his best-seller. Michael simply cannot comprehend how Hanna could do the things she did. For her part, Hanna cannot comprehend how Michael, or anyone else, could expect her to have done anything different.

Not that Hanna sets out to justify her actions, because she doesn’t. She merely insists that anyone else in her position would have done the same things.

Thus Michael and Hanna now inhabit different moral worlds. The middle part of the movie — the core segment — is about the profound tension this development creates, given the characters’ past intimacy. Now that Hanna has reappeared on the horizon of Michael’s life, he agonizes repeatedly over what to do next. Each decision presents Michael with two new options, thereby sustaining the emotional (and moral) suspense.

The third segment of the movie supplies its denoument. It is the least successful segment from a story-telling point of view, in part because it depicts Michael interacting with two minor characters with whom we have no emotional bond.

The function of the denoument is to briefly revisit the moral issues yet again, from two fresh perspectives. Thus the denoument serves a didactic purpose, even if it doesn’t supply a climactic conclusion to the tale.

Ultimately, the screenplay refuses to tell the viewer what to think:  it presents the viewer with a range of perspectives and leaves us to resolve the moral issues on our own.

I expected to enjoy The Reader, but I didn’t expect to find it as powerful as it is. This is one of those movies where you sit in your seat as the credits roll, grateful for a few minutes of stillness in which to collect your thoughts and prepare to re-enter the realm of everyday experience.

Of particular note:  Kate Winslett gives a terrific performance, making her character sympathetic despite the gravely evil nature of her deeds. At the same time, it was a carefully reserved performance — at no time did Winslett overreach and cross the line into melodrama.

I haven’t seen the other performances which have been nominated for best actress, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Winslett gets the nod.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Diane Stark
    Nov 21, 2009 @ 13:51:28

    I thought the film was weak in two instances – one, where Hanna shows up naked behind Michael. There was no foreshadowing of that and I don’t understand it. I don’t want to be told what to think, but I do want to be told what the characters think.

    Likewise, I don’t understand Micheal’s feelings about why he didn’t do anything with his information about Hanna’s illiteracy.

    Perhaps is it clearly present in the book, but just on its merits, the movie, although capturing an epic of human experience, has some bare spots for me.


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