Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
The Reader is a well made film in every way but, watching it, you can’t quite escape the feeling that you’re experiencing something that’s good for you rather than something that’s necessarily good. It’s the kind of film where history is revisited, important questions are asked, and people come to terms with things – all very heavy stuff, all beautifully handled, and yet the film seems somehow too aware of its heaviness, too academic in its observances.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink that uses an affair between a teenage boy and an older woman to explore post-war guilt in Germany. That boy is Michael, played as a young man by David Kross and as an adult by Ralph Fiennes, and that woman is Hanna, played by Kate Winslet. They meet in the late 1950s when he falls ill in the street and she helps him get home. When he’s sufficiently recovered, he returns to thank her and they begin their affair, which is at first purely sexual (they don’t even learn each other’s names until they’ve had a handful of encounters) but deepens after Hanna begins asking Michael to read aloud to her as a prelude to sex.
One day Hanna abruptly disappears, which leaves Michael confused and despairing. Nearly a decade later they come back into each other’s orbit when Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial with five other women for their actions when they were guards at Auschwitz. Michael is devastated by these revelations about Hanna and feels guilty for ever having loved her. This guilt will inform his relationships with women ever after, as he can never really bring himself to connect with anyone because he no longer trusts his own judgment. The section of the film which deals with the trial is the strongest both in terms of performance and narrative because it explores the issue of guilt and complicity in both intimate and more general terms. Hanna’s life is defined by a secret she finds shameful and which leads her to pursue a job at Auschwitz, leads her to abandon the life she was leading when she was with Michael, and eventually leads her to take the fall for her co-defendants so long as it means that she doesn’t have to admit to it. Michael comes to realize her secret and knows that it could save her from spending the rest of her life in prison but chooses to remain silent. Guilt here is not defined as action but inaction, as silence - the same silence that made the holocaust possible.
There is a conflict between Hanna and Michael’s generations centered on the legacy of the holocaust. When Hanna asks “What would you have done?” she voices the essential question of her generation, of people who were complicit either actively or through their very passivity in the face of the Nazi nightmare. It’s a question that Michael’s generation cannot comprehend because to acknowledge it as legitimate is to admit that in the worst of circumstances, they themselves might not do right. There is black and there is white and the guilt by association felt by the younger generation breeds contempt – one of Michael’s classmates suggests that the only thing to do is wipe out the previous generations and the stigma that surrounds them.
Director Stephen Daldry approaches the story with a necessary detachment - Michael is a very detached character, one who carefully compartmentalizes his life to keep any one thread from meeting another, and the narrative is moved forward by the practice of wilful ignorance, of pretending not to know or see. Fiennes is well cast as the older, haunted Michael and Kross is excellent as the younger Michael who slowly closes himself off. Per usual, Winslet is wonderful, her very movements and bearing suggesting the weight of her guilt and her shame. Her character is tricky because she at once owns her actions but doesn’t think of them as extraordinary. When asked towards the end if she ever thinks about the women from the camps who died as a result of her decisions, she shrugs. “The dead are still dead,” she says, adopting a very Leni Riefenstahl-esque attitude in noting that she can’t change the past.
For all that’s right about the film – and there’s a lot of things that are – it doesn’t quite push itself from being good to being great. It’s ultimately lacking in heart, which I think is a result of it wanting so badly to teach you important lessons. It comes so close but doesn’t quite get there.