24 September, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Between the lies

Official Selection List, European Film Awards 2009

Objectively assessing a film that’s drawn from Bernhard Schlink’s book about how reading changes lives, for good and ill? An interesting situation.

Given the theme of The Reader, and the frequency with which cinema been cited as a medium that is so different from print as to make comparisons invidious (but, as everyone knows, it’s the points on which they cross that make both art forms what they are), director Stephen Daldry’s well-used filmic mode of flashback to assess the emotional distance between a Germany barely a decade past the Second World War, and a society living in an almost universal sense of disillusionment and in many cases ignorance, is a fascinating device.

What the film in fact shows is not just the Holocaust, and its myriad of well-documented victims, but rather how they are memorialized by the passing of time.

Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (a younger Ralph Fiennes, very well played by the determinedly boyish David Kross) collapses, sickly and pain-stricken, from a trolley into the pouring rain of a cold afternoon. Here, he (and we) first encounter Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 35-year-old tram attendant, played with dignified solemnity by the Oscar and BAFTA-winning star.

Hanna takes Berg in and nurses him back to health – the pair become lovers, with Berg becoming a man via Hanna’s sexual maturity and Hanna coming to know true love, as well as becoming obsessed with Michael reading to her – anything from Ulysses to Lady Chatterley's Lover to Tintin (she had good taste for Belgian literature, obviously). The affair is not just about sex, but the act of reading too – it ends abruptly when Hanna vanishes from Michael’s life. Flash forward eight years – Michael, now a law student, finds Hanna again, but now on trial for war crimes. Michael’s lost feelings of love are twisted as he asks if he can still love the woman who is now cast as a Nazi monster. But, as we are to discover, secrets held on both sides are to prove pivotal, and destructive…

Daldry’s film has been vilified for its rather sympathetic view of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal who, even in old age, shows no remorse. However, where it actually succeeds, is to give a human face to ‘evil’ – the main thrust of The Reader is not so much what Hannah did in her past, or why she did it, but how a generation of people could sit back and watch it happen, how they could allow such atrocities to take place. A point for all nationalities to consider, for all time.

Awards: Click here for details.

124mins. In English, German and Greek.

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