Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Reader / *** (R)

Hanna Schmitz: Kate Winslet
Michael Berg: Ralph Fiennes
Young Michael Berg: David Kross
Professor Rohl: Bruno Ganz
Rose Mather/Ilana Mather: Lena Olin

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare. Based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. Running time: 124 min. Rated R (for some scenes of sexuality and nudity).

This review contains spoilers!

I was 15 when I visited Dachau, the World War II concentration camp located on the outskirts of Munich, Germany. At that time, the Holocaust was just a story in a history book to me. I hadn’t, by that point in my life, experienced the horrific realization of those events through so many movies and books and stories. The empty bunks and courtyard were museum pieces to me, rather than an all too real piece of world history. It was easy to look at those not-so-long-ago events at a distance as an American teenager on a class tour of Europe. But there were two elements in that camp that struck me with a horror I instinctively repressed. The first was the ovens where 15,000 bodies were disposed of in the camp’s final few months. Second was the infamous sign the prisoners had to walk under each day of their confinement that read “Arbeit Macht Frei”—the perpetual lie of the SS’s promise to free good workers.

The Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Reader” tells a story which starts in the late 1950s. During the first half of the film there is no mention of the atrocities committed on Germany’s soil. There is some slight evidence of the world’s greatest war in the background. There seems to be construction going on everywhere in the small city of Neustadt, where the story’s hero spends his formative years. The reconstruction in Germany is still under way, both physically and psychologically.

We meet 16-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) as he comes home from school on a city tram. He is sick and is helped by a woman who says little but clearly is compelled to help the boy out of kindness. The woman is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet, “The Holiday”), and the two will soon share a summer love affair. She is a much older woman than the nubile boy. She seems to be pained by some inner scar of the past, but the two find a certain need filled by each other. Their bond is drawn initially by sex, but they find other comforts from each other. Hanna in particular is drawn in by Michael’s sure recitation of the classic literature he is studying in school. The reading is just as satisfying to Hanna as the sex is to Michael.

Eventually the affair comes to an end, as it must. However, Hanna’s sudden withdraw from Michael’s life is mysterious and unexplained until years later when their lives cross paths again under far different circumstances. Michael is now a law student and has landed himself in an elite class of students under the instruction of Professor Rolf (Bruno Ganz, “Downfall”). They attend a Nazi war crimes trial in which six female SS guards face charges of murder. Hanna is one of the women. The other guards finger her as the ringleader. Michael has information that would exonerate her of that responsibility, but how can he reconcile the fact that she is guilty of aiding in the murder of prisoners for the Nazi SS?

The movie is framed as a flashback of Michael’s in 1995, reflecting on the events that shaped him into the barrister and man he has become. Ralph Fiennes (“In Bruges”) plays the older Michael with solemnity and regret. One of his regrets is how closed off he is to those he loves, including his teenage daughter from a broken marriage. The flashback-framing device feels like a tired cliché in these films about how a life is formed, but Fiennes helps to create a connection between the events of the past with those of his present.

Lena Olin (“Awake”), in a small dual role, also provides an emotional connection to the crimes committed by Hanna, juxtaposing the needs that Hanna fulfilled in Michael’s life as a young man. As a victim of the Holocaust during the trial and later playing the older version of that same victim’s daughter, Olin provides a small but direct reference to the crimes committed by Hanna long before her love affair with Michael.

For all the passion that Hanna and Michael feel for each other during their affair, there seems to be less gravity placed on the horrors of the Holocaust itself. We are never allowed to know what Hanna really feels about what she has done. Her attitude during the trial is that she was doing her job, but her passion for literature and the somber way she carries herself suggests that she is all too aware of what she has done. Perhaps, she feels she deserves to be punished. We never really know.

Director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare— who previously collaborated on the movie “The Hours”—seem to want to keep such issues complex. The characters don’t know the answers to the questions that trouble them. I don’t think this is wrong, however it keeps some of the emotions typically explored in a Holocaust subject at a distance. This is very much like my experiences in Dachau. I knew something terrible happened there, but I didn’t know how to feel about those empty barracks until I saw something I could understand. “The Reader” is more about the broad complexity of our human emotions than it is about understanding them.

No comments: