The Annihilating Feminine: Kate Winslet Gets Nasty in The Reader

“She was guilty, but not as guilty as she appeared.” – Bernhard Schlink, from his novel The Reader

Caution: Spoilers

Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) has had a long-running love affair with the theater, which might explain his fondness for the accoutrements of the stage seeping through into his filmic cannon: wigs, costumes, prostheses, make-up, and other game-changing physical constraints and technical elements are used in films like The Hours to accentuate his star’s performances. When Nicole Kidman put on a fake nose to play Virginia Woolf, not only was everyone talking about it (actually, they still are), but she also won an Oscar for her total immersion into character. And if a part of an actor’s job is, in fact, to disappear into their character, Daldry makes it easier by handing them the right tools.

With his adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s epic novel The Reader, Daldry has again chosen the route of unabashed theatricality to emphasize his characters’ dramatic arcs. He implores the audience to take a sizable leap of faith in casting 33-year-old tyro Kate Winslet in the pivotal role of former SS guard Hanna Schmitz. Winslet was Schlink’s first choice for the role, and Hanna is a dynamic part for any actress to play (one that was almost played by Kidman, who had to back out due to pregnancy). Winslet must play three versions of one woman and rely on an array of traditional appearance-changing techniques to aid her in discovering Hanna’s core.

She is, at turns, a gorgeous (if dour and buttoned-up) trolley ticket-taker in her 30s; a bewildered woman in her mid-40s on trial for war crimes during the Holocaust; and, ultimately, a broken, lumpy elderly woman on the cusp of freedom, redemption, and triumph. Rather than casting three separate women, Daldry has Winslet tackle each facet of the character herself, and it is a brave, big performance that easily ranks amongst her best work, even if The Reader doesn’t necessarily remain thoroughly engaging throughout as a whole.

The director has shown a fondness for the cruel, fragmented randomness of life with both of his previous films, a theme that continues in The Reader, as the cool Hanna meets the sick Michael in an alley (he is played by newcomer David Kross in a strong debut). Perhaps, out of an engrained sense of duty, the secretive woman takes care of the scared teen and takes a shine to him. Daldry sets up what could have been a scandalous affair between a much-older woman and a teenage boy, by infusing the scenes of eroticism with a soft sensuality and sensitivity that evokes a true coming of age story – continuing with another pet theme: the adolescent male perspective of a woman.

As in The Hours, there is also a preoccupation with the destructive and healing powers of water, and a major appreciation for academia and literature. In The Reader, the central caveat is Michael reading great works such as Homer’s The Odyssey to a rapt Hanna in between trysts and shouting matches. His reward being, of course, sex. Lest Daldry be pigeonholed into a particular niche, his directorial choices in the early scenes of The Reader show an urge to deconstruct traditional notions of romance and sexuality by making Hanna and Michael’s relationship truly symbiotic – they both hold a very specific power over the other.

In the sex scenes, Daldry gives perhaps the ultimate signal of parity that is rarely seen in English-language cinema: male and female nudity is in equal measure. Winslet is an actress who is unafraid to use her body as one of her tools, as witnessed by fearless physical work in such films as Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, or even in a blockbuster like James Cameron’s Titanic. Here, her body is again on full, naked display.

There is a sense of desperation in Hanna, a sense of secrecy. When she initiates the young man’s sexual awakening, she never seems like a pedophile or a dirty old lady. Daldry and Winslet wisely avoid American sexual mores that would dictate this to be a predatory relationship (though, if this was a film about a man in his mid-30s bedding a fifteen year old girl, surely there would be more of an uproar about the age difference). And then, after a sex-drenched, literature-filled summer, Hanna abruptly leaves Michael.

When we catch back up with the characters, Michael is in law school some years later (another Daldry trick – the fluid use of time in a narrative) and gearing up to watch his first big trial with Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). Several women who worked as guards at a concentration camp are up for their participation and complicity in war crimes and immediately there is a sense that their guilt is predestined in a post-war climate that is quick to atone for past sins (the shouts of “Nazi!” in the courtroom seem to indicate this – watch for Winslet’s reaction to these words, it is poignant). As they take the stand, Michael hears a familiar voice: Hanna, now in her 40s, is one of the women on trial.

She is no longer the dewy, distant fraulein of his youth, she is a changed woman; the years have put lines on her face and weathered her once milky countenance. She looks frightened, yet steely. To Winslet’s credit, the scenes in court are expertly played as she must at turns reveal her own ignorance, a sense of loyalty to her job, co-workers and government, and a hereto unforeseen bit of fragility. Hanna is not one to mince words, she is a simple woman who tells the truth, and in a situation like this, telling the truth might be her undoing. It is a performance with such a bravura lack of pretense and sentimentality that the viewer is almost placed in a position where they can empathize with the actions of a death camp guard.

In a risky move, Daldry chose to screen the completely finished version of The Reader for the first time at Manhattan’s 92 nd Street Y, at Columbia professor Dr. Annette Insdorf’s premiere film series, Reel Pieces. The venue is also a vital Jewish community center, where the topics of empathy, and even sympathy, for a Nazi war criminal were bound to provoke a divisive reaction amongst the audience, many of whom were old enough to possess a living memory of World War II’s atrocities.

On the street following the screening, I overheard some elderly audience members having a strongly-worded conversation about Winslet’s character and they seemed deeply offended that such sensitive treatment would be given to a Nazi collaborator. Others in the audience questioned Daldry (who was, in turn, questioned by Insdorf following the film), about whether or not he believed all guards at the camps were like Hanna. “This is one story about one guard”, he carefully answered, noting that Insdorf, one of the world’s leading Holocaust film scholars, advised him on all dubious matters, and that her book, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust was an important reference while shooting.

One very interesting sequence comes at the film’s end, as the aged Hanna is about to be released from jail and we are shown the sparseness of her conditions: grey concrete walls, a flimsy bed, the iron bars. It is bleak inside the actual prison, but who knows just how bleak it is inside the prison of the haunted, troubled Hanna’s mind. Her humanness is underscored with the inclusion of many little personal, artistic, home-made touches in the cell, as though she is trying to make the best of a bad situation as she nears the end of her life. These scenes are then juxtaposed with perhaps the strongest image in the entire film: a Jewish camp survivor (Lena Olin) and the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) meet at her tony Manhattan apartment to discuss Hanna and her crimes, she is ensconced in luxury, surrounded by gleaming objets d’art, and seemingly impervious.

Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz and David Kross as Michael

When questioned by an audience member on why he chose to portray a survivor as an almost stereotypical version of the “Wealthy Park Avenue Jew”, Daldry eruditely stated he wanted to craft a portrait of a survivor that had never been seen before onscreen. “I wanted to avoid the victim being the victim,” Daldry said. “I wanted to show the person that survived to be strong, not damaged. Someone wealthy, clear, and cultured.”

When diametrically opposed to Hanna’s bleak situation, it was a risky move that might have resulted in the audience feeling less sympathy for what seemed like an unsympathetic, bitter portrait of a Jewish survivor and more for Winslet’s fallen, redeemed Nazi. This scene felt very dangerous, very fresh. Insdorf praised the director for his sense of moral ambiguity: “You do not allow us to feel one thing or the other. [Hanna] is morally illiterate.”

“I found it quite hard,” said Daldry. “Because she learns to read, she gains moral consciousness – as she learns to read, she gains a mea culpa. The generation that went through the war – I don’t think there was a sense of responsibility. I didn’t want to give her [Hanna] that ‘let-out’. Just because she learns to read, that does not give her a way out.”

Daldry went on to explain that he had once spent time with [Nazi documentary filmmaker] Leni Riefenstahl and asked her if she thought much about her past. Her reply was “in Africa?”, as though she never existed in Hitler’s regime, or that, as many war criminals would imply, she was simply performing her job duties in a time of national crisis, as she was expected to. In the novel, Shclink mirrors this sentiment by writing “an executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening or attacking them. They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”

Hanna, too, employs this reasoning, but through Winslet’s clever, low-key performance, all of the character’s ambiguousness remains intact, making Hanna her most complicated, mature creation to date. Not to mention her most theatrically adventurous. Daldry also provides audiences with a rare treat: they get to figure out her motives for themselves rather than having it spoon-fed to them like babies. It is this marriage between Daldry’s sensibility and Winslet’s ability that makes The Reader worth a look despite its flaws.