The Reader (2008)

Director: Stephen Daldry

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By Roderick Heath

In the film version of Ira Levin’s pulp fantasy-revenge novel The Boys from Brazil (1978), Laurence Olivier plays a fictionalised version of Simon Weisenthal dubbed Ezra Leiberman. As he tries to uncover the machinations of fugitive war criminal Josef Mengele, he visits a jailed female SS guard he caught, Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen). Their interview proceeds uneasily until Leiberman gets to the point of his visit, at which point Frieda loses her temper and unleashes undimmed, venomous hatred at Leiberman. He immediately barks back—the first time in the film his voice has lifted above a pleasant whisper: “You are not a guard now Madame! You are a prisoner! I may walk through that door, but you are not going anywhere!”

This scene kept creeping into my head watching Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, and not just because it’s more fun. It’s an exchange that keeps our after-the-fact moral assumptions of the situation intact and satisfying: righteous survivor faces down the evil Nazi bitch-queen. Toy with this balance and, as some of the reactions to this film show, you’re soon in deep water. In the last Oscar season, Daldry’s film became something of the appointed sacrificial lamb for our contemporary culture’s heightened distaste for eating its greens. The Reader, however, pushes into rich and darkly confronting territory about the nature of responsibility and circumstance.

I might already be giving the wrong impression here about what I thought of Bernhard Schlink’s novel and the film made from it: neither is particularly good. But I have empathy for what both are getting at. I’ve always been decidedly in the camp that feels artistic explorations of the Holocaust are necessary and desirable, even if not pleasant, and the more the better. I feel about this as I do because art is often the only way to stab at the truth left out of history texts. Schlink does, too. As he puts it in an interesting if gracelessly essayistic passage:

When I think about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reassured until the 1980s, and in intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.

Self-evidently, the trouble this opens up is that one has to be very careful about how one is embellishing. If one creates a work of art to explore a nadir of human existence as a work of moral searching, then one must be very clear about how one approaches that sanctum. Despite the sex scenes, Schlink’s novel is the perfect book for high school teachers to give to teenagers to study (it is a set text in German high schools). It’s short, the writing is simple to the point of tedium, the narration is opaquely self-analytical, and the ambling meditations such as that quoted above are laid out in such a way that’s easy to quote in essays.

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The basic narrative is that old wheezy The Devil and the Flesh business of the sexually awakening boy who has an affair with an older woman with a dark secret, married to a Holocaust guilt theme. Here, the boy is Michael Berg (David Kross), the son of an elderly, disengaged philosophy professor, and the older woman is Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor living out of a cramped, seamy, but impeccably neat flat in Neustadt in 1959. Schlink’s psychological insight is shallow: he never convincingly paints a portrait either of a normal woman who found herself in an intolerable situation and lived with the consequences or of the man who is tied to her to the point where it infects all his future relationships. Schlink genuinely strains to define some obscured truths that inevitably have the most resonance for modern Germans: the limitations of the righteous fury his generation adopted in confronting an evil committed by people they loved. The climactic scene of both novel and film comes when Berg goes to visit a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin), whose brittle, pleasant refusal to countenance the intricacies of Hannah’s story is bound to hit hardest for a people who feel guilty and yet live with contradictions.

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The foreground elements in Daldry’s film of Schlink’s novel, especially Kate Winslet’s bravura performance as antiheroine Hannah and Ralph Fiennes’ haunted turn as the older Michael, make the film worthwhile. Daldry, a wishy-washy director who painted The Hours (2002) in shades of diuretic pastel as a kind of symphony of constipated suffering, mostly does his job by keeping his scenes framed and free of dangling boom mikes. He serves up the dreary obviousness of summery sunlight for days of carefree youth and drizzling dourness in wearied middle age. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare exacerbate faults of Schlink’s novel and invent their own. It’s one of those stories about ambiguity where the ambiguity is artfully contrived. Rather than offer new substance, the film is happy to transcribe almost verbatim. In filming The Reader, it becomes more apparent that it’s largely a standard-issue love story with a darker than usual gimmick for separating and torturing the lovers.

The tale’s crucial Macguffin is the fact that Hannah is a functioning illiterate, a fact that pushed her into situations— from leaving a job at Siemens and joining the SS, through to her final punitive conviction at a war crimes trial. It’s not terribly convincing that she’d be so ashamed of her illiteracy and so unaware of the pain it’s caused her that she’d let it go so far. But leaving that aside, that she learns to read in prison and thus finds a measure of self-respect has been handily dismissed by some critics as a specious celebration of “reading is good” that betrays the gravity of the subject matter—which is itself a pretty stupid assumption. Schlink’s point is about power: the command inherent in education, the possibilities offered by communicative skill, and the lack of liberty imposed by inequality. “Knowledge is power,” we say, without paying much attention to those without power. It’s not the most deeply pursued point in the novel or film. Plenty of educated, entirely self-motivated people got themselves into the thick of the Holocaust, too. But it’s legitimate, nonetheless, that The Reader takes aim at the tendency of societies to use its disadvantaged, malleable members to do their dirty work.

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That Hannah can’t read cuts her off from both history and culture—the whole Western canon that Michael reads to her is a new world—and also from clear lines of empathy. The world is full of incoherent signs and gaps in understanding for her. It’s clear in Schlink’s novel that she uses her new talent to read texts like Primo Levi’s autobiography and other Holocaust survivor tales to understand what she herself, despite participating, only had an outside perspective on: reading is implicitly an act of outreach and understanding. This is an aspect the film fails very badly in realising, to the point of obfuscating Schlink’s core character point. Hannah hangs herself on the eve of being released as an act of guilt: because she is a moral being caught in a situation without clear moral choice, and is no psychopath, she judges herself in a final, moral way. In the book, this is clear. In the film, it seems to be because Michael wasn’t demonstrative enough at their reunion.

Then again, in both book and film, just what Hannah represents seems ill-conceived. Schlink tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by presenting Hannah as both an avatar of guilt and a suffering martyr. In the film and rather more cheaply in the book, Hannah is pushed forward at her trial both by her own honesty and by the other ex-female guards with whom she’s tried as the mastermind behind the death of 300 Jews who were burned in a church. Schlink describes the other guards as fat, ugly, and immoral. Compared to Hannah’s desperate composure and comely features, it’s the cheapest of effects to render her a victim. In the film, this comparison is softened slightly—the other defendants look like women who disappeared into the middle class—but the point is just as obnoxious. Whatever the idea is about the fraught relationship of elders and youth in post-War Germany, it is repeatedly softened and rendered moot by the incompetent melding of the sentimental genre it’s inspired by and the very unsentimental exigencies of the problem at hand.

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Hannah’s brusque sensuality both hypnotises and appalls Michael, and one of the crueler twists comes when he discovers that her habit of making him read to her placed him in the same position as the favourites Hannah would adopt in the concentration camp; likewise a strange analogy is made between Hannah’s complicity in mass murder and her willful use of a teenage boy. That this sits uneasily and unresolvedly with the manipulation to perceive her as tragic victim is something neither Schlink nor Hare and Daldry attempt to resolve. Still, Schlink was well aware of the kink value inherent in the idea of an affair with a Nazi woman, preempting in his novel the many Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS quips fired at the film, when Michael confesses to fantasies of a “hard, imperious, cruel” Hannah and realising the gulf between fantasy and fact. The film has no such wit; indeed, no feel at all for the swirl of culture beyond its own immediate shoals. There are some scenes in a hippie-era university dorm (we know it’s the ’60s because the girls have long straight hair and guitar music wails), and one of Michael’s fellow students gets hot under the collar and speechy about the trial’s lack of moral expedience. But the social resonance is of the academically reduced variety. Only in the inevitably affecting moments when Michael visits Auschwitz and confronts a cold, rough-hewn reality does the film pack real punch.

The Reader is also about sexual intimacy. The film sports copious nudity in the first third, but it’s that curiously aseptic, pseudo-art-film sex where the erotic fumbling is as carefully poised as the camera to keep the dick shots to the permissible minimum. Where The Reader desperately needs some sense of the kind of passion and pain that upends lives, it has only studious, tasteful distance. The film finally feels exactly like the kind of muted, bourgeois, meandering effort of empathy that it’s supposed to be decrying. Kross, with his puffy cheeks and lack of any suggestion of emotional and intellectual depth, is the film’s weakest element, but he represents its lack of chutzpah well. The filmmakers recast the tale under the new generic format of Brokeback Mountain—an aging man forging a relationship with a rejected daughter by revealing a hidden, forbidden love.

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The other actors keep the film buoyant, from Winslet, who gives her ill-defined character as much of her body and spirit as she can, and Fiennes, who plays repressed feeling like a master conductor, even on so small a stage, through to smaller contributions from Olin, and Bruno Ganz, as Berg’s intellectually forceful law professor. Ganz played the same role, more or less, in The Boys from Brazil—the knowing professor who leads the hero into understanding the Nazi plan. This is where I came in. l

  • Pat spoke:
    16th/05/2009 to 7:59 am

    I have to admit, I was appalled by “The Reader,” and I haven’t understood its defenders. Your review here is the first I’ve read that clearly delineates how the film differs from the novel,and what does and doesn’t work in each.This was a singularly enlightening review. So for that,I thank you. (I have not read the novel myself.)
    I do agree wholeheartedly with you that ” artistic explorations of the Holocaust are necessary and desirable, even if not pleasant, and the more the better.” But for me, “The Reader” trivialized the Holocaust and became something more like “Summer of ’42” with a Holocaust backdrop. I found it offensive.
    Schlink’s novel is currently bured in a stack of Books I Keep Meaning to Read; based on your review here, I hope to extract it and start reading soon.

  • Rod spoke:
    16th/05/2009 to 10:47 am

    Hi, Pat.
    I read the book in a couple of three-hour sessions one weekend, so rest assured it hardly represents a great commitment of time. Glad you gained something from this review anyway.
    I’ll state that “trivializing” is a word I’m becoming uncomfortable with, because it can, like “pretentious”, be so easily used as a stamp to put on anything that doesn’t do what I want it to do. It’s particularly problematic with Holocaust movies where expectations and reactions tend to divide very strictly between “incontrovertibly great, worthy of the subject” and “bad, offensive in failing the subject”. To me, “trivializing” implies a lack of engagement that renders something negligible or unimportant, a crass use of one element only to advance another purpose. I can’t accuse this film of that, exactly, not in the same way I’d level such an accusation at, for instance, Blood Diamond. The Reader, on the other hand, stoops perpetually for all the weight it presumes to assume. But I can and will criticize it for shoddiness in how it engages.

  • Anh Khoi Do spoke:
    16th/05/2009 to 11:44 pm

    From my experience, I don’t necessarily agree with Pat that The Reader “trivializes” the Holocaust. In fact, although I admit that love takes a rather important place, the film depicts quite well in background the shame that many people from Michael’s generation feel toward the previous one. In the case of one of the supporting characters (Michael’s classmate), he feels guilty of association with a generation of Germans who let the Holocaust happen. That classmate goes as far to say that this generation of Germans should be killed. This goes without saying that there’s also the dialogue at the end between Michael and Hannah, which constitutes an exploration of the Holocaust. All in all, is The Reader a film that gives few importance to the Holocaust? Not sure about that.

  • Rod spoke:
    17th/05/2009 to 8:26 pm

    Yes, that’s generally where I’m coming from on the matter. However, at the risk of reiterating, I think the film fails to the point of confusion to convey what the relationship between the love affair and the historical crime that overshadows it is, and how and why the latter warps the participants in the former.

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