Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Do you love me?"

The Reader is a very well-made film with excellent performances by its extraordinarily talented cast. Stephen Daldry once again proves that he's well on his way to becoming one of the finest directors of his generation. The film is also eager--a little too eager, I might add--to ask hard-hitting moral questions to a point that it feels like it's spoon feeding the audience with its questions instead of telling an emotionally satisfying story.

Unlike more impressive films that questions and tests its characters and audiences' morals, such as Letters From Iwo Jima and Schindler's List, The Reader lacks a warm, approachable core. Daldry, who is capable of directing intense, brutally honest scenes that showcase a wide range of character development, constantly keeps his audience at a cold, uncomfortable distance. Daldry's approach nearly works until I began to feel too little for the characters in the very final moments of the film. Then I realize that I've been on a long, hard journey with these characters--I do care for them, but not without difficulty. Daldry wants us to feel like we're eavesdropping but rarely do we go beyond film-watching. I was constantly part of an audience, but never a witness.

Based on a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader begins with a torrid, secret affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty six year old woman. In 1958, a fever-stricken Michael Berg (David Kross) fatefully encounters Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor. Hanna takes pity on the boy and helps him home. A few months later, Michael recovers and finds Hanna to thank her for her kindness. Michael, with his innocent, schoolboy crush on Hanna, is immediately seduced by her. Hanna takes advantage of Michael's obvious trust and infatuation to get sex and, strangely enough, literature. Michael eagerly agrees to this; he is simply teenage boy in love. Erotic sex scenes follow, but under Daldry's direction, they never feel too gratuitous.

When Hanna receives a promotion to work in the office due to excellent reviews, she leaves her tiny apartment and disappears.

Several years later, Michael is a law student, with the opportunity to observe a war-crime trial that was a result of a popular book written by one of the survivors. To Michael's complete and utter shock, Hanna is the star defendent of the trial. Hanna, along with several other middle-aged women, is charged with locking up a group of Jewish women in a church when the church was being bombed.

But Michael possesses a secret about Hanna that will change the outcome of the case. I will not reveal the secret since it seems to be central to the film's advertising, but it is a secret that Hannah is so ashamed of that she would rather die than have it revealed to the masses.

Like Hanna, Michael is ashamed too, but for something entirely different: He feels guilt for ever loving Hanna--a guard of a Nazi prison, a criminal.

Many years later, an unhappy, recently divorced, and middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) begins to come to terms with his relationship with Hanna. He still feels the lingering guilt for never summoning up the courage to help Hanna, so he begins to help Hanna in a way that he hopes can benefit her, even in prison.

But the fact that Michael never tries to persuade Hanna to reveal her secret--which would have definitely changed the outcome of her sentence--frustrates me to no end. I haven't been more angry with a film character since Rolf in The Sound of Music. This is where the spoon feeding starts: Would you convince a criminal to reveal her secret if it could help change the outcome of his or her sentence, even though you feel shame for sharing an inappropriate relationship with him or her many years ago? Michael chooses the easy path, the cowardly path. But wouldn't most people in Michael's position do the same thing? Perhaps. We never know what we'd really do in a situation until we're really in that particular situation. But whatever we decide, we have to face the consequences--whether it's guilt, shame, or regret.

A film as thought-provoking as The Reader should immediately considered a worthy film, right?

I'm honestly torn between whether I like this film or not. As I said before, The Reader is a well-made film. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins is superb. The score by Nico Mulhay is wonderfully effective and provides intensity and tension when needed. Daldry does a great job showing character development and even in the midst of the film's rather cold surface, there are several moving scenes but those scenes aren't enough to provide a lasting impact. But they do make me think.

I tend to exaggerate when it comes to good performances (at the moment, I'm rather ashamed to bring up any examples) but Winslet and Kross deliver spectacular performances. I don't think I've been more impressed by Winslet before, which actually makes me wonder where I've been for the past ten years. (I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...yet.)

Hanna is unquestionably a flawed and despicable character, but when Michael finally discovers her secret, my heart broke for her, even though I knew it all along. When Hanna finds a way to cure her shame (with Michael's help), I cheered for her. No one can ever forgive her for her terrible crimes, but redemption is always a second option. What I feel for Hanna is all due to Winslet's complex performance--a performance that is deservingly one of the frontrunners for this year's supporting actress line-up at the Oscars. Winslet sinks into all those layers of aging make-up, but she never loses touch with her character.

Fiennes gives a fine performance here as the older Michael, but it is Kross who steals his thunder. Kross is a promising newcomer who can go head-to-head with a master like Winslet; he has endless potential. Kross makes me care for Michael when it matters most, especially when I see how he sacrifices his adolescent social life just to maintain an affair with the woman he loves. Kross makes Michael whiny and naive, wishy-washy and cowardly, like many teenage boys, I'd imagine. In the same way I eventually sympathize for Hanna, I sympathize for Michael too, all due to the foundation Kross successfully builds in the first part of the film.

David Hare's screenplay is too bare to provide any grand emotional impact, but the performances and the direction do help. There is plenty to admire in the film; the positives outweigh the negatvies. The tough questions the film asks, which can feel forced and manipulativs, are rightfully asked. As much as I pondered, comfortable answer is nowhere in sight. The Reader features a guilt-ridden atmosphere of post-WWII Germany that ponders for easy answers but finds none. At its heart, The Reader is a haunting coming-of-age story. While a nation gradually heals in the shadow of its atrocious crimes, a man begins to mend his shameful past and a woman realizes that there is a cure for her secret shame. In the case of The Reader, redemption may be key.


  1. yay I'm seeing this sunday. I loved the book of this, I'm studying it in my german class so I know what you mean about the intense moral questions. I just can't wait to see the film - and Kate as Hanna!!

  2. Anahita - Oh, Kate Winslet is excellent as Hanna. She will meet all your expectations...

    I kind of want to read the novel, which makes me kind of wish that I knew German so I can read the novel in its original language. But ah well...

  3. i just read a 'professional'
    review of 'reader' - not as thorough or interesting as yours. both of you dwell on the sexual relationship of the boy and older woman, which makes me think that, despite all the flaws, this a movie i might like to see. of course that assumes the sex is not, as you say, gratuitous. one does not want gratuitous sex, of course, but breathes there a boy with soul so dead that he would not want a helping hand from an 'older woman' - who looks like kate winslett...sigh.

  4. Richard - I agree, Kate Winslet is gorgeous. But there is a certain kind of roughness about her in The Reader that couldn't quite grasp.

    See The Reader. It's a great film, despite its problems.

  5. rough, but not gratuitous - sounding better all the time.
    btw, re: gwyneth P., (1)not all musicians are wimps; (2) gwyneth while my second favorite actress, and still extremely pretty, is not any role model for good choice in men

  6. (2) gwyneth while my second favorite actress, and still extremely pretty, is not any role model for good choice in men

    Brilliant Richard, yet hilarious.

  7. I don't know when this opens in SA, hopefully soon, as I love the novel, love Daldry and worship Kate. Cannot wait!

  8. 'the reader' is one of the oscar nominees. the word is that it is due to the clout of the weinstein bros ., but we know it is really due to the clout of 'marcy in the balcony'!!

  9. does anyone look at these old threads? As promised, I saw 'the reader, and was struck by a couple of things: 1. I just happened to see 'almost famous' on cable yesterday, and was amazed by the similarity of the two boys, both 15and incredibly sweet and vulnerable, and just the kind of kids that attrack girls like moths. in fact they even had very similar smiles. there is no doubt that hanna found in michael, something clean and pure - for maybe the first time in her adult life; a refuge from the depravity and horror of her past, and a reason to face the future. hanna was both a lover and a mother to michael's good son.
    while there was some fairly explicit sex, the sex was not erotic - any more than the sex in 'almost famous'. in fact, the scene in which hanna washes michael's body seems to be a way of washing away of her own sins.
    when fiennes takes over as the older micheal, his 'reading' to hanna seems to be done as atonement for his past failure to connect with her and possibly help her during her time of need. not only is he providing her with a life line to some kind of reality and humanity, but he is doing.
    something that makes him a better person, and a more involved person than he has been before. he finds a purpose that has been sadly missing.
    one could, of course, say a lot about the holacost(?), and the guilt of hanna v the guilt of the others involved, and the even greater guilt of their judges.
    hey, marcy, this is not easy, but i'm stopping now. btw. i did not see the end of the movie - after hanna is released. i had to leave. did i miss some crazy ending, or not.

  10. Richard - Aw, why did you leave? Well, the ending of the film is available on the film's Wiki page.

    I liked your insight about the Fugit/Kross comparison, especially the smile part. You're right: These two are pretty similar!

    I don't think The Reader is completely about the Holocaust. Sure, the film does refer to the Holocaust, but it is truly about redemption. You bring up some very important points about sin and guilt between the two main characters.

    Thanks for your input about the film, Richard! I don't know if anyone reads these old threads, but I do enjoy continuing our discussions here.

  11. i'm glad you are back. i assume you were into heavy studying. the multiplexes are bursting with all the big movies - and 'doubt' is back
    - and zooey has two movies coming up..we should light candles to pray that they are watchable.
    you can be sure that i left 'the reader' only because i absolutely had to. anyway, h'wood movie makers usually feel that the must explain every detail ad nauseum. leaving a little to the imagination doesn't hurt. if hanna's secret is revealed in the last few minutes, so what? how bad can it be? and how relevant to the plot?

  12. i just read the wiki review of 'the reader' as you suggested, and was very surprised and somewhat annoyed by the 'secret', which i think is much too contrived. i would think it extremely unlikely in germany at that time, and a weak prop on which to hang so much of the motivation.
    it seems that i did miss an overwrought 'coda'. maybe i'll see it again, or not. like i said, read 'sophie's choice'. it's all there.
    being third generation(or 4th) german, it seems too me that the german people well deserve their full measure of guilt, and that hanna had more than enough motivation to accept punishment - and expiation for her own siins and the sins of her collegues without needing any unlikely props. some people, maybe most people can rationalize and continue to function. hanna could not.

  13. 500 Days of Summer definitely looks promising, Richard! I saw the trailer and I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    I don't know my history well, but I think it is possible that Hanna lived in the countryside or her family was so poor that she wasn't able to receive a proper education.

    But again, you made some great points about Hanna. I should really watch/read Sophie's Choice. I've seen a part of the film in history last year and Meryl Streep--WOW. I have to keep reminding myself to see the film in its entirety.

  14. you must read the book!! william styron is one of the great american authors of the 20th century. if you read the book, you will not want to see the movie. i get chills just thinking about it.

    i still think the illiteracy bit is a cop out - not blaming the film makers, of course. some day when it is on cable, i may watch it again, or not.

    btw, speaking of cable, i just caught 'juno', which i had totally missed. i was totally smitten with ellen page, but the whole cast was first rate. what a sweet movie. did you ever review it, marcy??

  15. Richard, I might get shot for this but...

    I've never reviewed the film. And I don't actually like Juno. Or not as much as the average person.

    Okay, I like Ellen Page's performance. She made what could have been a one-note, smart aleck teenager into someone completely human. Jennifer Garner is terrific in the film too. I like Diablo Cody's self-conscious dialogue at times. I want to get this out of the way before I begin criticizing the film.

    But honestly, for a comedy, it's not really funny. I didn't really laugh, though I understood why the given dialogue or situation would or should be funny. I don't think that a person as intelligent as Juno would ever experiment with sex without protection. I also don't think that someone as vibrant as Juno would fall for a snooze like Paulie Bleeker. And Juno's family seems to accept Juno's pregnancy with almost too much ease. There isn't much family dynamics within Juno's household.

    Juno is one of those films that is so average that I don't even really care about it at all. It's a decent movie and I'm sure Cody will go far (she has an excellent "Entertainment Weekly" column)--but Juno certainly did not resonate with me, though I know many wonderful people who truly adore and worship the film.

  16. aw...shucks...but she was such a purtty little thang...just as cute as a little bug. and what an uncanny ability to be able to say just what any of us would wish we could say at the right moment, and not get a slap upside the head for being a smartass.
    what i find hard to believe is that the movie was nominated for an A.A. i must have read it wrong.
    obviously, it was just a piece of teen age fluff, not to be taken seriously at all. and the fact that the nerd gets the heroine in the end is just part of the fantasy, appealing greatly to the nerdy film makers...what happened to your inner child? but it was a guy moivie; so, not really your fault...he,he.