Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 22, 2009)
Of the five films that received Best Picture nominees for 2008, The Reader came as the biggest surprise. It didn’t receive the most glowing reviews, so few expected it to make much of an Oscars impact. It was the most controversial nomination as well, for the movie’s subject matter didn’t sit well with some.
We start in West Germany circa 1958, where The Reader concentrates on 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross). He takes seriously ill, and after he recuperates, he goes to formally thank the woman who helped him at a time of need. This soon leads to a romantic affair between the 30-something Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and the teen boy.
While this relationship focuses on carnal pleasures at first, it eventually develops into something more cerebral when Hanna has Michael read various books to her as a form of foreplay. Michael embraces the combination of sex and literature, and for a while, the relationship prospers. However, the pair eventually drift, and Hanna moves without any prior notice to Michael.
With that the story jumps ahead to 1966 and finds Michael in law school. As a class assignment, he attends a trial for Nazi war criminals. The first defendant he sees? Hanna. The film follows these events and their impact on Michael’s life, including views of 52-year-old Michael (Ralph Fiennes) in the mid-90s.
In the very first episode of Extras, Winslet played herself – sort of. Like all the cameos in that series, Winslet portrayed a less than laudable version of herself. In this case, Winslet was supposed to be acting as a heroic nun in a Holocaust flick. The following dialogue appeared:
Andy Millman: ”I think, you know, you doing this is so commendable - you know, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.”
Kate Winslet: “My God, I'm not doing it for that. And I don't think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been? You know, we get it - it was grim, move on. No, I'm doing it because I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust - guaranteed Oscar!”
Oh, the irony – irony I’m sure wasn’t lost on Winslet herself. I wonder if she felt any reluctance to do The Reader due to her role on Extras; undoubtedly she knew her cameo would be brought up in connection with the flick.
Of course, Hanna offers a very different character than the super-nun of Extras. Hanna escorted thousands of people to their deaths, so she presents a role more complex than the stock Oskar Schindler-style do-gooder.
Or she should give us a more three-dimensional role. On paper, that’s what we deserve, but in reality, Hanna’s not got much happening. The movie’s estimation of her apparent intellect seems to vary all over the place. Sometimes she seems quite smart, while on other occasions, she plummets to Gump levels.
And I don’t feel this way due to the film’s “revelation” that Hanna can’t read. (I put “revelation” in quotes because the movie telegraphs this information in a variety of clumsy ways before it finally reveals it.) Hanna comes across as the Wise Older Woman when she romances Michael, but then she looks like a brain dead stooge in court. We’re never quite sure what her actual level of intellect is, and the movie suffers for it.
The film’s biggest issue – and its main cause of controversy – stems from the rather sympathetic manner in which it portrays Hanna. Some believe that Nazis don’t deserve to be painted as anything other than cruel monsters – and to some degree, I find it hard to argue against that idea. I felt the same way when I watched Tora! Tora! Tora!: some acts are so heinous that I don’t know if it’s appropriate to paint the perpetrators in a more human light.
This is what Reader does with Hanna, and I think it goes too far - way too far. At no point does Hanna do much of anything to take responsibility for her actions. She claims she had no choice, she just followed orders, blah blah blah.
And she might’ve been right. It’s very easy for us to condemn those placed in her position, but the truth is that most people probably would’ve done the same thing. There’s a real debate that can be waged about how much culpability the “day to day” Nazis had.
The Reader totally fails to explore these issues. It just paints Hanna as a sad victim. Indeed, it almost makes those who judge her look like the baddies. As they shout “murderer!” at Hanna, we’re supposed to feel sorry her and view the accusers as cruel and intolerant.
Even if we agree that those workaday Nazis deserve some form of understanding – or even absolution, if you’d like – I think The Reader goes too far in the wrong direction. Again, we see very little admission of guilt or responsibility on Hanna’s part, and the movie tries too hard to portray her as a victim. A more balanced portrait would’ve been much more effective – and less distasteful - than this gloppy fare.
Winslet does fine as Hanna, though I think she might be a bit too attractive for the part. Oh, the film frumps her up, but she still has a little too much star power to represent the kind of middle-aged Miss Lonelyhearts Hanna appears to be. Winslet tries her best to give Hanna depth and heart, but she just can’t overcome the various script and storytelling weaknesses.
I think she fares better than the Dueling Michaels, though. The characters come across as total non-entities, and the respective actors do little to elevate matters. Fiennes probably offers the stronger performance, but he’s saddled with the weakest parts of the script. Really, once the movie leaves “Young Michael”, it falters. The film veers into melodrama prior to that point, but it goes over the top when Poor Illiterate Hanna Learns to Read. Fiennes is stuck with the sappiest moments.
Of which we find many. Frankly, I could never quite figure out what The Reader wanted to achieve. Another “coming of age” story but with an insidious twist? An indication that Nazis are human, too? Melodramatic Oscar bait? The latter feels most logical to me, and I guess it worked. None of this means that The Reader is an effective, involving film, however.