Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Reader

A film about post-WWII Germany is not exactly an original idea, neither is an adolescent boy having a steamy affair with an older woman, for these reasons I would not nominate "The Reader" for best original screenplay.
The movie begins in a excessively white apartment in 1995 Berlin. A man, Michael, watches his one night stand leave his residence when he has a flashback induced by the structure of the untidy bed covers. We are transported 37 years back to see our protagonist as a miserable (the rainy scenery, cold induced red nose, and downward slumping posture would suggest this) youth with poor self esteem ("I didn't know I was good at anything" he later mentions). As he tries to find his way home in what later turns out to be a fever, he is assisted by a serious looking blond (Hannah - Kate Winslet). Months later, upon recovery, he returns and finds her to thank her (with red roses). Surprising as this is, it is a nonchalant comment about not even being able to read when sick that gets Hannah hot for the 15 year old. Soon, they are meeting on an almost daily basis. They meet in the tram carts, Michael spends less time with friends and family. His life is nothing short of miraculous. However, Hannah does not give it away for free, she makes her lover read to her. The Odyssey, The Woman with the Little Dog, Mark Twain, and numerous other classics. The director does not make it terribly difficult to notice, but Hannah turns out to be illiterate. She orders what Michael orders at restaurants, she refuses to look at the books he reads to her, and having him read to her, of course. The affair only lasts for a summer, but years later this tiny fact comes back to haunt both of them. When Michael is in law school, a professor takes the class to view a controversial case concerning ex-guards at a concentration camp. One of them just happens to be Hannah, which naturally brings stress upon Michael despite years of absence. The trial is brought to light because a former prisoner wrote a book (ironically enough) naming eight women who had been employed by the SS. It is in this scene that Winslet won her Oscar. She puts on a persona of a pure Hitler youth. She states in a naive tone that control over prisoners is more important than their lives. She gives brilliant looks of perplexity when the court is shocked and appalled by her words. Fear and confusion emulate her. The woman accused conspire against Hannah and forge a confession that names her as the one responsible for leaving prisoners locked in a church after it catches fire (another poignant symbol). The judges asks Hannah for a hand writing sample, but she is too proud to admit her illiteracy to a court full of people. Throughout the trial, the law professor gives philosophical musing about law and society, stating that the laws shape a society more than morals, thus explaining why so many (like Hannah) were so willing to assist the Third Reich in its destruction. Hannah is imprisoned for life. She would likely have killed herself early on if it were not for Michael sending her cassette recordings of all the great novels that he once read to her. With both written and spoken words at her disposal, Hannah's confinement in prison is actually a release from the prison that has tormented her all her life. She slowly begins to learn to read and write, and continues to contact Michael to keep sending more. He puts so much energy into it that he loses his wife and comes off as cold to his daughter. The passion of their youths is felt in a much more mature manner here. Eventually, Hannah is due for release for good behavior and you'll never guess who her only contact on the outside is. Michael meets her as a very old woman and this brings him down to earth. Her granny appearance makes him act standoffish, reminding us that the affair they had was just that (despite the profound feelings he clearly has). On the day of her release, she stands on a pile of books and hangs herself. Ironic, since they were the objects of her internal resurrection (Note the Bible is nowhere to be found is the film, though it fits in quite a few places).
Overall, this is not a film that will be remembered as a classic decades from now, but it deserves the credit of being called an interesting plot. The entire movie has an element of secrecy, the affair, his being dishonest with his family and friends, her dishonesty about being what boils down to a Nazi, and the theme recurs in all the books that he reads her. It is when the truth begins to come out that people become miserable, quite parallel to Hitler's Germany. The sun naively shines on most of the film. "The Reader" is not a masterpiece, but has plenty of things to look for and is a good way to forget about life for two hours.


  1. And you're now the only person I know of other than myself that has seen this movie. I also didn't think it was a masterpiece, didn't deserve a Best Picture nomination surely, but I thought it was interesting, plot-wise. I'm actually going to go ahead and disagree with your first comments. I've seen more Holocaust movies than anyone ever needs to, and I thought the plot was pretty original. As original as a movie about the Holocaust can be nowadays. Also, it was based off of a book, Dom, so it wouldn't get nominated for best original screenplay anyway...

    Also, I thought the performances were outstanding. Kate Winslet was fabulous, as was David Kross. And it's impossible for me to be too objective about Ralph Fiennes but I thought he was also incredible, as always.

  2. I feel justified in my decision to not see this melodramatic potboiler. How ridiculous. Plenty of good analysis here, and, while I think there's too much plot summary, I'm glad I read it so I can avoid seeing the film.