The Reader (2008)
Every now and then, the assorted members that make up the Motion Picture Academy make, shall we say, quizzical selections. There are snubs and undeserving winners, but then there’s the crazy nomination where you see the movie and say to yourself, “What the hell were they thinking?” In recent years I’ve usually found at least one Best Picture nominee that left me scratching my head. In 2007 it was Atonement, in 2004 it was Finding Neverland. But I could at least fathom a guess as to why each of those movies appealed to the Academy and garnered a Best Picture nominee. I’m stumped when it comes to 2008 Best Picture nominee, The Reader. Based upon an award-winning novel, I can only surmise that Academy voters saw the words “Kate Winslet” and “Holocaust” and thought the movie had to be far worthier than the likes of WALL-E or The Dark Knight.
In post-World War II Germany, teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a torrid affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). He’s 15 years old; she’s easily twice his age. She instructs her young lover to read to her before they engage in sexual activity, which turns reading into an act of foreplay. The summer affair ends abruptly when Hanna runs off after her employer has given her a promotion. Michael is heartbroken that his lover has flown the coop. Flash forward several years and Michael is attending law school in Berlin. He and his fellow students visit an ongoing trial that features a group of former female concentration camp guards. To Michael’s shock, Hanna is on trial as one of the murderous Nazi guards. The young boy is beset by his feelings of love for a person who has committed despicable deeds. Hanna is keeping a deeper secret and will go to her grave to keep it. Eventually an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, wasted) finds his life returning to an imprisoned, older Hanna, possibly his life’s greatest love.
The Reader contains interesting story elements: sex, guilt, romantic affairs with former Nazi prison guards. But rarely do any of these interesting elements actually transform into an interesting story. The movie just kind of lies there, basking in some phony reflective pause when the movie manages to be so distant and uninvolved. At times the movies seems to have little interest in its own self. This movie feels like it was made to be Oscar-bait because it deals with Big Themes and Important Topics, or at least the film wants to appear like it deals with said items. The Reader is mostly shallow. It pretends to present a moral quandary but director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) doesn’t bother to analyze the contradictions of his characters. The film alternates between characters shouting obvious declarations and just stumbling around in contemplation, bumping into the furniture. It’s simultaneously annoying and boring. The movie wants to put a human face on monstrous deeds, which can be a noble pursuit. The Reader fails to be a “challenging” movie when it can’t be bothered to challenge its characters to do something.
The message of quasi redemption at the center of this specific film is either laughably naïve or downright insulting. Hanna keeps a personal secret shame at all costs, and she would rather go to prison for life as a Nazi murderer than let people know she cannot read. I’m sorry, but that’s dumb. The fact that it seems like The Reader presents the theory that Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt is offensive. I’m sure the 300 people that were locked in a burning church to die would be sympathetic that their killer couldn’t read See Spot Run. In what world is illiteracy more shameful than genocide? If you’re going to float ridiculous notions at least commit to exploring their very ridiculousness, and therefore acknowledge that there is something amiss. The Reader instead seems to flutter from idea to idea without ever truly delving deeper. If you’re going to craft a character that’s more afraid of a library than a book burning, at least try and explore this enigma. There’s drama in the disconnect. But the movie never feels like this should be an issue. Can’t you see, silly movie goers, that Hanna is but a symbol for the German people who couldn’t read the signs to come and were ignorant to the extent of Hitler’s horrors. She would rather stick to her duty than claim moral responsibility. That’s fine, but there are a great number of movies, and countless more books, that have examined the psychological culpability that can turn a populace into silently willing participants in mass murder. The Reader would rather spend its closing moments exploring the magical healing power of literature. The fact that the film eliminates the novels’ section where Hanna reads news articles and novels about the Holocaust (thus gaining moral clarity) is dumb. Instead of gaining insight into her actions she reads Chekhov. The movie ends up transforming into a weird and wrongheaded episode of Reading Rainbow.
Winslet’s acting is fine. She’s such a gifted actress that I doubt you’ll see her give a bad performance even if the movie doesn’t live up to her talent. She isn’t doing anything showy to make Hanna a sympathetic character, which works out well, but the film’s distant perspective means that Hanna seems more like an aloof cipher. She’s this formless blob of a character that expresses a mixture of human emotions but doesn’t resemble a recognizable human. This is the fault of the director and screenwriter who chose to replace subtext with ponderous silent stares (note to all “deep” filmmakers: THEY ARE NOT THE SAME). Winslet slips into the character with the same ease she has slipping out of her clothes. The Reader is another nudity-filled performance for Winslet, her eighth movie featuring her nude (also her fourth Oscar nomination for a nude performance, there must be some connection). As readers can attest, I am no prude when it comes to the female form, but even I thought things were getting a little gratuitous. In the first 45 minutes, Winslet is naked in almost every scene she shares with Kross. It’s almost as if the nudity is supposed to disarm the audience and make Hanna a more intimate. Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses, which is reason enough that she shouldn’t be handed a Best Actress Oscar for substandard material.
The Reader may not be a traditional Holocaust film and in fact it’s really not so much about the Holocaust. Sure, that colossal event casts a shadow over Germany, but the movie is mostly about a cold and daft woman and the callow boy who loves her. It’s about two characters, but it the movie is too reserved and then some. Everybody just seems numb, which makes for a boring movie after a while. I repeat: a boring movie about underage sexual affairs with freaking’ Nazis! Winslet’s fine performance is not enough to redeem the whole movie. I think much was lost in translation from page to screen. The Reader actually was more effective when it was just a cradle-robbing unorthodox love story. But then, those flicks don’t typically get nominated for Best Picture Oscars.
Nate’s Grade: C