This film review of “The Reader” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 6, 2009
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink
Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz
Some books are just not made to be adapted into films, and prior to seeing the movie version of The Reader, I would have thought this slight novel fell into this category. It has now been brought to screen by director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours” and “Billy Elliot”) and adapted by English playwright David Hare (who also adapted “The Hours”). Hare was beaten out for best adapted screenplay in last week’s Oscars by “Slumdog Millionaire”, but for my money he should have won.
The 1997 meditative book by German author Bernhard Schlink tells the story of one Michael Berg, a fifteen year old German boy who has a profoundly moving affair during the summer of 1958 with a former concentration camp guard and now tram conductor, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Some eight years later, Michael is studying to become a lawyer under the tutelage of Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz, who played the role of Hitler so memorably in “Downfall”) and attends the trial of a number of female former concentration camp guards – one of whom is Hanna.
The film jumps in time, commencing in 1995 Berlin as the now grown up (and professional solicitor) Michael – played by Ralph Fiennes – is seen keeping his emotional distance from his latest lover, who contemptuously asks if any woman stays around long to have breakfast with him. A passing tram brings Michael (played as a youth by young German actor David Kross) remembering his first meeting with Hanna in his home town of Neustadt, when she helped him home when he first became ill with scarlet fever (actually hepatitis in the original book). After two meetings, the two commence an affair, which evolves into a routine of his reading aloud to her, followed by lovemaking. Hanna, we slowly learn, is totally functionally illiterate, and way too proud to tell anyone or to seek help.
Few films this season are layered with as much meaning as “The Reader”. Schlink’s original book (which was at least semi-autobiographical) – as well as much of his subsequent writing – is a highly personal and creative attempt to come to terms with the anger and the guilt felt by the post-war generation of Germans towards their parents: those who participated in the activities of the Nazi state, or who at least passively watched it unfold. The young law students ardently debate German guilt, under the relatively silent guidance of Rohl (and what did he do in the war?). Even the name of Michael’s town is symbolic, Neustadt meaning “new city”. Michael is caught between the past and the present, and he only imperfectly – and at times very badly – negotiates his way through these minefields.
The story of “The Reader” presents a devastatingly effective dilemma for Michael: he knows things about Hanna’s trial (which this review won’t reveal) that could turn it, at least in part, to her favour. What does he do? Later he communicates with Hanna in prison, but – again keeping his emotional distance – only via audio tapes of the books he once read to her. This film (and the original book) takes a relatively pessimistic view: Michael appears to be emotionally damaged, almost irretrievably, by his teenage relationship with Hanna. A final scene takes place in New York City, where the aging Michael visits Ilana Mather (played by Lena Olin), a Holocaust survivor who testified at Hanna’s trial. Ilana comes across as possibly the most grounded character in the book, dealing with the needy Michael as if with a child. On the one hand, this portrayal is a very positive one, but it also implies – worryingly – that somehow surviving the Holocaust might be easier psychologically than surviving an affair with Hanna Schmitz. Clearly the two are not comparable in any way. Portraying the perpetrators of atrocities on screen in human ways is always a risky one. Why should we care? There is no easy answer, and some may be offended by how this story examines the lives of Germans with only passing reference to their Jewish victims.
For her role in “The Reader”, Kate Winslet – now called the “best actress of her generation” by “Time” magazine – last week won an Oscar, in addition to her Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. (The film was also nominated for best film, best director and best cinematography, but did not win any of those). And indeed Winslet carries the film to heights it otherwise would not have achieved: in his scenes with her, David Kross is excellent, bringing a believable freshness to difficult scenes. Without Winslet on screen, Kross appears a bit lost – such as the scene when he visits Auschwitz, wandering on his own. Yes, it happened in the book, but his blank face shows no hidden emotion or meaning, adding little to the story. Ralph Fiennes does an adequate job as the older Michael, but appears miscast in this film. Aside from only a passing physical resemblance, his adult angst is never believable in the same way as his character’s younger self was. Of course, Fiennes has his own history with German roles, having played an astonishingly effective and scary concentration camp commander Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”.
“The Reader” has a special poignancy: the film’s two original producers – Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack – both died last year, prior to the film’s completion. The untimely deaths of these two outstanding film-makers infuse this film with a particular sense of mourning and loss.