Reviewing “The Reader” in The New Yorker last December, Anthony Lane described the film as “pernicious” and “a low-grade musing on atrocity, garnished with erotic titillation.” Manohla Dargis of the New York Times was equally contemptuous of the film, calling it “another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard.”
Yet this is the same movie, out this week on DVD (Genius Products/The Weinstein Company, $29.95, rated R), that received Academy Award nominations for best picture, director (Stephen Daldry), adapted screenplay (David Hare) and cinematography (Chris Menges and Roger Deakins), and for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar as best actress. It’s also a movie that drew rave reviews from Roger Ebert and many other notable film critics.
Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, David Kross
How does one account for such a discrepancy in critical responses to “The Reader,” other than saying there’s no accounting for taste?
Based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel, a blockbuster in Germany and a best seller in the United States (thanks in part to its endorsement by Oprah Winfrey), “The Reader” is largely concerned with the reaction to the Holocaust by Germans - both the generation of Germans who came of age after World War II as well as those who perpetrated the Nazi’s crimes or went along silently with them. As screenwriter David Hare says in the DVD documentary “Adapting a Timeless Masterpiece: Making ‘The Reader,’” the film is about “how do you live in the shadow of one of the greatest crimes in human history.”
The story is told in a series of flashbacks from the 1990s back to the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s - but not the years in which the Holocaust took place - from the point of view of a successful German attorney named Michael Berg, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes as an adult and newcomer David Kross as a West German teenager and later as a law student. As a 15-year-old in 1958, Michael becomes ill in front of an apartment in his West German town. In an act of kindness to a stranger, a woman named Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) comes to his aid.
When Michael returns later to thank her, the two embark upon a sexual relationship, despite Hanna being more than twice Michael’s age. Their torrid lovemaking is interspersed with her demanding that he read aloud to her, with the books ranging from “The Odyssey” to “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” But their relationship ends abruptly, with Hanna leaving town without a word to the young man.
THE READER 3 ½ stars Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz Director: Stephen Daldry Distributor: Genius Products/The Weinstein Company Rated R
Eight years later, Michael is a law student in Heidelberg, and his professor (portrayed by the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz) takes him and a small group of students to attend the trial of a half dozen women who had been Nazi SS guards of Jewish prisoners, all women and children. To Michael’s shock, Hanna is one of the defendants.
Yet even at this date, more than two decades after the end of the war, Hanna seems oblivious to the crimes she has committed and the charges leveled against her, telling the court that she was just doing her job. And even though Michael knows a secret about her that might lessen the charges against her - she is illiterate, and could not have written the report that becomes a piece of crucial evidence against her - he says nothing. As for her, she seems more ashamed of her secret illiteracy than her crimes against humanity.
Critics of “The Reader” have jumped on Hanna’s illiteracy, and her later attempts in prison to teach herself to read, as a plot device to engender audience sympathy in a character deserving none. And they have complained that the erotic scenes also serve to humanize someone who we learn has behaved inhumanly, not to mention the fact that, given the age discrepancy between Hanna and Michael, she may also have committed a form of child abuse.
Yet this point of view neglects to see how much “The Reader” is about the necessity for Germans to educate themselves about the Holocaust and the crimes that were committed in their country’s name.
The law students argue about their parents’ complicity and their own attitudes towards the SS defendants. As for Michael, despite the love he once felt for Hanna and the compassion he might have for her, he can never forgive her for her crimes. Indeed, he feels guilty for once having loved someone who could have committed such monstrous acts. From his attendance at the trial and through a visit he takes to a concentration camp, Michael has to confront the commonplace excuses of his elders - that they were just doing their jobs and didn’t really know what was going on.
It’s a tribute to Winslet’s gifts as an actress that she never does anything to encourage genuine empathy. To be sure, a viewer may come away from “The Reader” seeing how Hanna’s educational limitations may have harmed her or forced her to make unfortunate decisions (she became an SS guard because it paid better than the factory work she had been doing), but Winslet never crosses the line to become sympathetic.
The moral core of “The Reader” clearly rests in two characters played by Lena Olin. As the old Jewish woman who testifies at Hanna’s trial, she is the voice of truth and justice. And as her grown-up daughter, she offers no absolution or forgiveness to either Hanna for her crimes or Michael for his guilt.
The DVD’s bonus features include 11 deleted scenes (one of which is an encounter between Michael and a man who lives near the concentration camp Michael visits), a conversation between director Daldry and his young co-star Kross, and short features on Winslet’s aging makeup, composer Nico Muhly and production designer Brigitte Broch.