The Reader: Elephant in the Room

HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO TO PROTECT A SECRET?

I was a huge fan of director Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002). He knows how to work with the finest screenwriters who in their turn know how to turn difficult novels into coherent scripts. One of them is David Hare who also adapted Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”. Much of the story in “The Reader” and its interpretations take place in the lead character’s mind, a daunting challenge to Hare’s adaptation. I think the results are indeed admirable… but I can’t help feeling troubled by the elephant in the room.

The year is 1958 and 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), who lives in Heidelberg, West Germany, is feeling sick. He vomits outside a building and is taken care of by one of the women who lives there, a 36-year-old tram conductress called Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). When Michael feels better he comes back to her with flowers, thanking her for the helping hand. He’s fascinated by her good looks and keeps coming back to her; Hanna treats him almost like a mother would a child (even calling him “kid”), but they soon embark on a sexual relationship. She teaches him how to be a good lover and he reads books to her. As Michael goes to college, their affair continues but he is getting increasingly annoyed at the fact that it is always Hanna who sets the rules of their relationship.

It ends on the day when Hanna disappears without a trace. Michael is unable to forget her. Eight years later, as a law student he attends a trial where a group of women are accused of having allowed 300 Auschwitz prisoners perish in a fire… and is stunned to learn that one of the former SS guards is Hanna.

Horrors of the Holocaust
Perhaps I should explain my initial statement. The elephant in the room is the Holocaust, which is part of this story’s background. At one point, Michael even visits a concentration camp and sees all the evidence for himself. Hanna was there and helped murder Jews… but it is still the fling with her that ends up dominating his life totally, even into his fifties; we meet him again in 1995, played by Ralph Fiennes, and realize that the Heidelberg years have made him sad and distant. In light of the crimes that Hanna is found guilty of (even though the dubious nature of her confession is a critical point in the story) it becomes a challenge to understand why Michael is so fundamentally unable to move on with his life. The horrors of the Holocaust lie there in the background, constantly reminding us of the fact that Michael’s woes are nothing in comparison.

Still, the issue of German collective guilt is addressed in touching ways and Lena Olin’s character in particular, a camp survivor, is there to shake him out of his personal misery. I am not in tears over the tragedy of the romance between Hanna and Michael, which looks like what the filmmakers were aiming for… but the actions of the characters do offer plenty of food for thought.

Daldry has done as good a job as one can expect, shooting the film on location. Kross is adequate as young Michael and having Bruno Ganz play his law professor is a nice touch. Winslet delivers the best performance of the film, however, as an incredibly complex, self-protecting human being whose sense of shame is deeply conflicted.

The Reader 2008-U.S.-Britain-Germany. 124 min. Color. Produced by Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti, Redmond Morris. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Screenplay: David Hare. Novel: Bernhard Schlink. Cast: Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg as an adult), David Kross (Michael Berg as a teenager), Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, Karoline Herfurth.

Trivia: Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche were allegedly considered for the part of Hanna.

Oscar: Best Actress (Winslet). BAFTA: Best Actress (Winslet). Golden Globe: Best Actress (Winslet). European Film Awards: Best Actress (Winslet).

Last word: “I read the book. Anthony Minghella was an old friend of mine. I badgered Anthony to let me do it, and he wanted to direct it and write it himself. After a few years, he said ‘No, I probably won’t get ‘round to it for a while longer, so basically you can do it if I can produce it with Sydney (Pollack)’. And Sydney and Anthony and I have wanted to do something together for a long time, so it was a perfect way forward, really.” (Daldry, Collider)

 

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