Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Reader

The Reader by Stephen Daldry (U.S.-German , 2008) 124 min.

The self-imposed march towards seeing all of the Oscar nominated films is on! I am glad that I knew little of this film - I was pleasantly surprised at how good Winslet was in it. Much better than Revolutionary Road I think. The film is based on a book by German writer Bernhard Schlink (see an interesting interview with Charlie Rose here).

Winslet is Hanna Schmitz, a lonely, 30 something, none too friendly ticket taker on a tram living in West Germany in the late 50s when she encounters, and aids, the fragile Michael (charming newcomer David Kross) a 15 year old boy who has taken ill in the street. It turns out that he has scarlet fever and becomes house bound for months. Remembering Hanna's kindness some months later he returns to her apartment with flowers.

A volatile, sexual relationship quickly develops between the two with Hannah curiously encouraging the boy to read to her before sex as a sort of foreplay (The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Chekov's "The Lady and the Little Dog" to mention a few - the gal has good taste!).

Eventually they part (this is never explained why, Hanna merely flees her apartment with her belongings) and we flash forward to Michael as a law student in Heidelberg in the late 60s observing a trial of former Nazi guards, one of whom is Hanna. Michael is justifiably horrified on two levels, firstly and most obviously, because Hanna is being accused of a terrible atrocity in which 300 Jews burned to death inside a locked church. Secondly, he has crucial information as to why Hanna cannot be the ring leader as her co-accuseds have alleged and for which she accepts full responsibility rather than reveal to the court. Her reticence to reveal the truth is the key to the whole movie, to an understanding of who Hanna is.

Hanna's reaction to the allegations of her complicity in Nazi atrocities seems frightening honest and, I believe, reflects the view of many Germans who were complicit. They felt they had no choice and that you (the viewer, the interrogator) would have done the same in their shoes.

Michael's role as student of law allows the film to debate the culpability of the Germans for the Holocaust. As one fellow law student caustically remarks, "Everyone knew." and few did anything about it.

To say more would ruin the plot. Ralph Fiennes has a somewhat limited and very subtly played role in the film as Michael as an older man. Still troubled by this relationship with Hanna, emotionally stunted and cold, he cannot shake the memory of her and eventually re-establishes contact with her in prison. He assists her in the only way he can and affects a sort of change in her despite his repulsion for her actions.

Slowly, Hanna evolves ... the old defiance withers and dies but in its place is perhaps repentance and a desire to learn. Perhaps too late. But Michael changes too and it is worth the wait for him as a character and for us as the filmgoers.

1 comment:

Maria said...

This is one I've been meaning to see. Thanks for not revealing the ending!
xo Maria