[11 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext. When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.
When he’s stricken with Scarlett Fever, 15 year old Michael Berg is inadvertently helped by an unassuming German woman who works as a conductor on the streetcar. As he mends, he slowly becomes obsessed with his memories of the enigmatic lady. It’s not long before he’s spying on her, skipping school to visit her apartment. Michael and Hanna soon begin an affair, their 21 year difference is age meaning very little to their passion. After a summer of lust and literature, she disappears, leaving her young lover heartbroken. All Michael has left is his memories of lazy afternoons in Hanna’s flat, she asking to be read to before they can fulfill their carnal desires.
Years later, while in law school, Michael attends a series of War Crime Tribunals, and there he learns that Hannah is a defendant. Seems she was one of several prison guards who selected victims for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The woman he slept with was an integral part of the Final Solution. Destroyed by the revelation, Michael must face a serious crisis of conscience. He has information that could actually help Hanna’s case. But his former paramour is unapologetic in her confession, and considering the monstrosity of her acts, Michael assumes his silence is more than justified.
In an awards season that has suddenly embraced the Shoah as a selling point, The Reader is not really interested in the extermination of the Jews. Sure, the film focuses on Hanna Schmidt’s ‘only following orders’ admissions, the rampant carnality of her character early on suddenly tainted with the blood of an entire ethnicity later on. In author Schlink’s own words, he wanted Hanna’s earthy sexuality to stand in direct contradiction to her concentration camp cruelty. But somewhere along the line, director Daldry and screenwriter David Hare lost this concept. Indeed, all throughout their version of The Reader, important storytelling elements inherent in the book’s magic are all but missing. Without getting into detail, everything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his approach is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.
Aside from the fact that she’s a mother of two, there is no longer anything “brave” about this actress bearing all for a movie role. Ever since she dropped blou for co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the accomplished British thesp has had a hard time keeping her knickers on. Here, her Hanna is a quasi-pedophile who sees a strapping young lad hopped up and happy to oblige, and she immediately takes him to bed. Only later, once his adolescent hormones are good and engorged does her true tact become clear. Hanna needs Michael as a conduit to the written world. As someone who cannot read and write, she will gladly trade sex for an oral workout of a decidedly different kind. While David Kross does his best messed-up horndog hero, the duo’s love scenes have a static, unsympathetic aura.
By following Schlink’s strategies (the book is divided into three distinct parts), Daldry also runs the risk of making one section more important than the others. And with the number of nude scenes we see up front, it’s clear where his motion picture proclivities lie. The bedroom romps take up so much time here that, when we see Hanna is on trial for being a “model employee” of the Reich, the film has to rush through the realities. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the crimes committed, but all we see of the horrors is Michael’s solitary walk through of a closed camp. Even worse, the entire courtroom drama is dispensed with post haste, the quicker to get to Ralph Fiennes and the mandatory montages of moping about and recording books for an imprisoned Hanna to listen to.
The last act of The Reader is perhaps the biggest overall disappointment. In the book, Hanna becomes aware on her own, using Michael’s tape recorder and cassettes as a means of learning to read. After running through a litany of survivor literature, she realizes her place in history - and how truly terrible it is. In Daldry’s world however, this gray haired old lady spends time revisiting the classics she loved during her summer of love with Michael. There is no real measure of contrition, no acknowledgment of blame or long lasting culpability on her part. Her fate seems silly, almost tossed off as an after thought. Everything thereafter is clouded by a similar lack of clarity. Even Fiennes’ last act mea culpa with a woefully unexplained Lena Olin plays like a PC postscript for a viewership unaware of the whole Nazi/Jew “thing”.
In fact, much of The Reader misinterprets Schlink’s motives for trying to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Instead of concentrating on what current generations think, the film wants to focus on young passion and the suffering that comes from secrets. Winslet and Fiennes both acquit themselves admirably (though she actually deserves more praise for her clothed role in Revolutionary Road than anything she does here), and Daldry does an excellent job with tone, time period, and details. On its own, however, The Reader doesn’t make much sense. As a drama, it’s dull. As a reflection of the original source material, it’s a sadly mistake miscalculation.