, 124 min, 2008
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), Bernhard Schlink (book Der Vorleser)
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz
Stephen Daldry’s The Reader is an intimate epic of sexual awakening, embarassing secrets, shameful lies, grief and guilt. This is a sensual, historically-influenced tale which touches greatness, but never quite lives up to it.
In 1958 in Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) gets sick disembarking from the train one day and is taken in and cared for by a mysterious “older woman” named Hanna (Kate Winslet). He goes home, stays home ill from school for three months, and returns to give Hanna flowers as thanks for her treatment of him. An almost immediate erotic charge is felt between them. A pact is made: They will meet virtually every day after he gets out of school, she will listen to him read to her from the latest assigned book, and then they’ll have sex. Lots and lots of sex, although the closest they get to intimacy is her pet name for him: “Kid.”
In 1995 in Berlin, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) is older, cold, withdrawn. He seems haunted by something, we know not what. Michael and Hanna’s affair, we learn, lasted a summer and consumed him, but ended abruptly with her disappearance and no explanation.
In 1966, Michael attends a German law school and his professor (Bruno Ganz) takes the small class to attend a trial – six former Nazi prison guards are on trial for murder after a horrible fire; one of the guards is Hanna. Michael is saddened, embarassed, revolted and conflicted; should he speak up, or not? Hanna admits to full responsibility over the order that caused the people to die in the fire, however, both Hanna and Michael know something nobody in the court is aware of – it is the withholding of this knowledge that will haunt Michael in his later years; the reason why is practically right there in the title.
Decades later, near the film’s end, Michael has a stunning encounter with a wealthy Jewess (Lena Olin), a Holocaust survivor who truly and correctly cannot forgive Hanna for “going along” and showing little or no remorse for her part in the tragedy.
The film, directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours), is based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, adapted by David Hare (Damage, The Hours). Like Daldry’s previous film, The Hours (2002), this one moves back and forth through time with almost reckless abandon; the experience can occasionally be a bit confusing.
The cinematography is jointly by Roger Deakins (Revolutionary Road, Fargo) and Chris Menges (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), and bares none of the hallmarks of their work – it is cold and crisp, pristine and lacking in style; the photography suits the story and the characters.
Winslet is very good as the cool, enigmatic Hanna, who simply “went along” with her orders – does that make her the very face of evil’s banality? Fiennes is strong as ever in the role of the tortured, grief-stricken ex-lover. Young David Kross blends just the right mixture of adolescent curiosity and righteous indignation. The sex and nudity, of which there are a great deal, could be a distraction from the larger implications of the story in the long-run; the premise owes something to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972).
What is this story about? Some might say this is about the Holocaust as a whole, and they’d be wrong. Some still may think this is about Hanna’s secret, which isn’t entirely true. It’s about knowing something and not speaking up about it when you know it’s the right thing to do. The film, then, is an effective parable, about what it means to “go along” and the pain and regret that can cause.