Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The Reader ****
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Volker Bruch, Lena Olin
Exploring the notions of guilt, emotional restraint, literature and survival, Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" reaffirms the director's ability to deliver films that are capable of serving as erudite, if sometimes too cerebral, essays, emotional time bombs or both.
Mostly set in Germany, the plot centers on the life of Michael who as an older man (Fiennes) reflects on his past and remembers the summer when he was fifteen (played by Kross who is a true revelation) and met Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a tram conductor in her mid thirties who in a way exerted great power over his entire life.
After she aided him when he got sick on his way home, the two began an affair during which he explored his blossoming sexuality with the older woman, who asked nothing in return but to have books read out loud for her.
One day when he goes to her apartment, Michael discovers that Hanna has disappeared; he sees her again almost ten years later when, as a law student, he attends a trial against Nazi criminals where Hanna is one of the accused.
Still hurt from the way she abandoned him years before and somewhat disgusted by the fact that he loved someone who might've murdered people in concentration camps, Michael comes to an ethical and moral dilemma when he realizes he has information that might change the course of Hanna's verdict.
But "The Reader" isn't half as easy to absorb as a synopsis would have it seem, its implications go deeper and touch on several levels of humanity and even the lack of it.
"The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature" exclaims one of Michael's professors, "you may say the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which for various reasons, sometimes perverse sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose."
Based on the brilliant book by Bernhard Schlink, the film adaptation is above all a fascinating ode to literature and how we write other people's roles in our own (his)story.
Not in a fantastic way, but as in the means we have of perceiving others. Hanna therefore switches from being "heroine" and "villain" to Michael who as a kid worships her, but during the trial seems to understand her strange behavior (even their sex life "first you read to me, then we make love" was like a regime of sorts) while abhorring her existence and their relationship.
During one chilling scene Michael learns how Hanna chose the people she'd sent off to kill; she'd usually go for young, vulnerable, sickly types who read out loud to her and actually thought they'd be safe as long as they stayed under her care. For the witnesses, the mere idea sounds perverse and evil, to Michael however it's even more affecting because he sees himself as those victims: in a way he played their very role.
Several situations within the film lead to various degrees of "reading" and none dare to proclaim they have an absolute truth.
Among these situations is the idea of Nazism itself, "The Reader" isn't about the Holocaust or good vs. evil within this context; it elevates itself in order to cast a wider net of possibilities.
Notice how there is nary a sign or symbol of Nazism in the entire movie, we never see a single swastika or any sort of extermination footage a la "Sophie's Choice". The only time we even see a concentration camp is when Michael visits one, but consider how if we didn't know the context it could appear to be an empty warehouse.
We never see Hanna wearing an SS uniform or killing anyone, but like Michael we're led to draw our own conclusions ignoring her "big" secret (a twist of sorts that is brilliantly underplayed by a masterful editing job) one that may not absolve or justify her, but definitely casts her under a different light.
In the film's most haunting moment, Hanna attends the day of the trial when she will be sentenced. She wears a dark suit and tie that give the illusion of a severe uniform; upon entering the room she is welcomed by cries of "Nazi!" and boos from the crowd, who in her sober dress choice detect perverse defiance. Their case of imaginary Nazi imagery is only more affecting because it serves as a bleak metaphor for what has remained the "elephant in the room" for entire generations and a whole country.
It's been made a standard of sorts by the media to assume that Jews were the only victims of the Holocaust, and while their extermination is one of the darkest pages in history, little has been made about the consequences it had on others, least of all Germans.
Touching the subject of German Holocaust guilt is certainly quite uncommon and doing so by using a highly sexual, seemingly shallow analogy might not be the easiest choice, but by reducing two extremes to just people, the film is able to encompass more than it appears to be doing.
This is anchored by the sublime performance by Kate Winslet who doesn't care if the audience likes Hanna or not as long as she remains true to herself.
The actress, known for her colorful performances usually playing rebellious characters, gives Hanna an affecting, pragmatic dignity.
When she engages in the affair with Michael, she doesn't allow her to ask if what she's doing is right, for Hanna sex is something natural and sometimes she hints at vulnerability by the fact that her detachment is perhaps the only way she knows of providing love.
In the trial scenes, where Hanna only speaks when questioned, Winslet's eyes are filled with rage, confusion and despair; but the cold, commanding way in which she delivers her lines offer something quite different.
When confronted by the judge about her actions while working for the SS, she asks "what would you have done?", for Hanna the question is logical, for those listening to her it's the justification of a monster. Winslet turns her character into an unkowing seductress who remains ignorant of her effect on people, not because she plays the fool, but precisely because she allows others to project themselves into her.
It's remarkable that by film's end it's almost impossible to describe Hanna, because calling her a martyr, victim, villain, criminal, monster or any other adjective would be reducing her to an archetype and to do so would imply that you're also limiting the events she was involved in to a cliché situation with just two possible outcomes and instantly recognizable motives.
By making Hanna Schmitz someone you could actually love Winslet delivers one of the greatest performances of her career.
It's not an accident then that the film doesn't highlight the May/December nature of Hanna and Michael's affair (age of consent in Germany is much lower than 18), most of the audience after all will choose to understand this is wrong, or will they?
The movie daringly pushes the audience to ask themselves who are they to condemn and to judge. Why is one crime bigger than another? Why are some people more vulnerable than others? Was Hanna being a patriot by serving the SS? Who makes up the rules for things that happen after wars? What exactly makes Hanna guiltier than Michael?
"How do you know when you've no idea what it means?" asks Michael to Hanna after she declares a line in Greek to be beautiful. This simple truth can also be applied to the larger shape of things.
Not so surprisingly as it approaches its end the film seems to return to its literary source by becoming cyclical (Michael becoming as impenetrable as Hanna). It almost ends where it starts, offering more questions than answers.
As the older Michael, infused with a sterile conviction and guilt by Fiennes, approaches a Holocaust survivor (a superbly complex Olin who shines in one scene) you sense there is still a disconnection with the past and present (which might be hard to fathom for some viewers but actually plays a significant role in creating the whole mood of the film, while enhancing the theory of German survivor guilt).
It should result ironic that this woman, who wrote the book that helped convict Hanna, seems to have no grasp of the fact that she also might have aided in the imparting of injustice.
Perhaps another film would've attached these scenes with facile, didactic resolutions and moral compromises, "The Reader" doesn't even try, instead offering yet another intellectual dilemma by forcing us to wonder if lives can ever be summed up by words.