The Reader

The Reader


Reviewed by: Chris

Can you recall being read stories as a child? Warm and tucked up in your bed. Feeling safe, secure, loved. And that wonderful, strong, all-knowing adult giving you undivided attention? You don’t have to do anything. Wonderful tales race before your eyes. Lose yourself in the story of the prince as he slays the dragon. Or the princess awoken with a kiss.

When we awake as adults, we maybe re-create that security for ourselves. We read to get to sleep. We read to our own children. We enjoy worlds and emotions that give us respite from the hard business of living. Why not?

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I wondered if Hanna (Kate Winslet) had ever been read to as a child. A hard life shows on her face. She lives in a tiny apartment in Berlin. She gets by. But, more importantly, Hanna cannot rebuild her world through a half hour escape in a novel. Hanna cannot read.

The Reader brings together familiar enough storylines – the seduction of a young boy by an older woman – the trial of a former SS guard – guilt – self-sacrifice – love found, then lost. But the emotional punch is delivered by mismatching our sympathies to the characters. The people we love turn out to be deeply flawed. But if we hold that against them, are we doing so to make ourselves feel better?

Hanna has sex with young Michael (David Kross), shortly before his 16th birthday. We are encouraged to just accept it. Any analysing over whether it was ‘wrong’ or screwed Michael up emotionally can be done by those diehards in the cafe after the film. More pertinent at the time is their genuine affection, the superb acting, and the imaginative love-making between an extremely buff Michael and a rather fit-looking Kate Winslet. Winslet/Hanna is the constant transformation throughout our film. She is harsh, convincingly Germanic, and ages convincingly from her thirties to her seventies. It’s a make-up job that almost rivals Kidman’s Virginia Woolf in director Stephen Daldry’s earlier masterpiece, The Hours.

Hanna is brutally honest with herself about almost everything. Except one thing. She is deeply ashamed of being illiterate. She hides it from Michael, who nevertheless senses it. He makes a habit of reading to her. Everything from Homer’s Odyssey and Tolstoy to comic books and back again to Chekhov. We realise how important it is to her: she announces to him that he will read to her before making love, not afterwards.Chekhov’s Lady With The Dog (which makes a repeat appearance) is a story about a seemingly casual encounter from which neither can let go. In both Chekhov and The Reader, the affair has serious consequences.

Michael continues schooling to become a lawyer. Hanna is offered a promotion from her bus conductor job – to work in an office. This is a disaster – as she can’t read. She throws a hissy fit at puzzled Michael and breaks up their affair. Later, when we learn she had once accepted work as an SS guard instead of a step up in her old job, we can secretly suspect the same reason.

Although Hanna is guilty of terrible crimes in the past, our sympathies are not so much with her victims. The one survivor has written a damning book and patently done rather well for herself, elegant and tall in contrast to the haggard and drawn guards on trial. Those indicted are a handful out of tens of thousands. Symbolic sacrifices, their incarceration allowing the silent others to feel sanctified. Germany righteously punishes its own. Jews are avenged. Justice is seen to be done. But we see Hanna’s co-accused gang up on her. She confesses to something she could not have committed. A personal surrender, an over-redemption.

Michael doesn’t announce a truth that would mitigate her sentence. He is too ashamed to be connected to her. He disguises it as ‘respecting her wishes.’ Like Odysseus secretly observing Penelope, he stays incognito. Michael’s ‘respectable shame’ becomes the shame of humanity, unable to forgive, whatever the cost.

Ralph Fiennes, as the older Michael, is well-cast. Although the opening scene of The Reader recalls The Constant Gardener (white collar chap with nude woman wandering around apartment), Michael is more of a throwback to the slimy characters that Fiennes specialises in. Whether it’s Voldermort in Harry Potter, Spider, or The English Patient’s adulterous Count Laszlo (who was also tended by a girl called Hana – the literary references get increasing incestuous with that film’s director being the late producer on this one).

At this point I differed from my viewing companion on the film. She declared it one of the saddest films she had ever seen, while I could not get out of my mind what a shit Michael was. We both agreed it was fundamentally a love story. But for me it was marred by an increasing sense of cynicism. Catharsis for whom? As the emotional valence ratchets up scene by scene, I feel sucked into a sick psychopathology of characters whose stunted development was hardly a matter for theatrical wallowing. And while Winslet ages 40 years in the course of the movie, Michael simply has two ages played by two actors. At one point – amid the dizzying flashbacks and forwards – I had to believe Fiennes was 20 years younger as he was wearing a jumper instead of a tie.

David Hare has done an admirable job with the screenplay. But the philosophical questioning of attitudes to people who helped the Nazis is hard to portray with cinema’s broad brush. In The Hours, Hare (and Daldry) had both the genius of Virginia Woolf’s ideas and Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning modern take to work from. With The Reader, Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel has generated a film that is thought-provoking rather than yielding insight. Hanna’s illiteracy is his metaphor for modern understanding of the Holocaust. We weren’t there. We can’t understand. “What would you do?” Hanna asks the judge, not rhetorically, but wanting an answer.

And what would you do, if you couldn’t live with what you’ve done? Even if you felt you’d had no choice? And if even the healing fantasy world of fiction is finally denied you? The Reader is a story that puts nothing to bed.

Reviewed on: 05 Jan 2009
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A law student re-encounters an old lover as she faces a war-crimes trial.
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Director: Stephen Daldry

Writer: David Hare, Bernhard Schlink

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, David Kross, Kate Winslet, Susanne Lothar, Alissa Wilms, Florian Bartholomäi, Friederike Becht, Matthias Habich, Frieder Venus

Year: 2008

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany


BIFF 2009
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