Sober intelligence goes only so far in crafting an effective bigscreen version of the international bestseller “The Reader.” German author Bernhard Schlink’s succinct, widely admired 1995 novel, which parts company with most Holocaust literature by placing a perpetrator, not a victim, at the story’s center, uses a late-1950s affair between a former concentration camp guard and a teenager half her age to explore both generations’ difficulty in coming to terms with German war guilt. Stephen Daldry’s film is sensitively realized and dramatically absorbing, but comes across as an essentially cerebral experience without gut impact. Classy package will appeal to upscale specialized auds and the bookish set but pic will have trouble crossing over to the general public Stateside. Offshore prospects look stronger.
Crisscrossing narrative lines that were laid out chronologically in the novel, David Hare’s astringent screenplay dispenses gradations of accountability across the decades, beginning with Nazi functionaries who might well have been just “doing their jobs” to members of the “second generation” of the postwar period who had to decide how to react to and judge their elders. The intense sexual relationship serves as a simple, effective metaphor for the elemental generational link, as well as for the shame and uncertainty of how to deal with the fallout.
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A chance meeting and an act of kindness lead to a first tango in Neustadt between Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a cold, severe but nonetheless attractive woman in her mid-30s who collects tram fares, and 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), a bright, well-built student who lives with his middle-class family. Transforming with startling but convincing rapidity from an uncertain teen into a cocky young man, Michael begins dropping by Hanna’s flat every day after school for his sentimental education, which is illustrated by Daldry judiciously but with plenty of nudity.
Title stems from Hanna’s request that Michael read to her after or, preferably, before their physical exertions. His selections stick to the classics: “The Odyssey,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Chekhov, for starters. When the “kid,” as Hanna always calls him, launches into “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” she deems it “disgusting” before instructing him to continue reading. Michael takes Hanna on a country outing one day, writes a poem about her and is sufficiently smitten to rebuff the attentions of even his most attractive female classmates.
But one day, Hanna is gone, her flat emptied out. Story proper then jumps eight years to 1966, when Michael is a law student under the tutelage of Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). When their class attends the trial of several middle-aged women who worked as SS guards at concentration camps during the war, one of them, to Michael’s horror, is Hanna.
Michael tells no one of his personal connection; in fact, we have previously heard the older incarnation of Michael (Ralph Fiennes), who’s become a lawyer, tell his daughter (Hannah Herzsprung), “I’m aware I wasn’t always open with you. I’m not open with anyone.”
As the trial wears on, however, his fear of revelation begins to tear him up inside, as he possesses some information that could help Hanna’s defense. Thus are the attitudes of younger Germans toward Nazi crimes in which they had no direct involvement held up for scrutiny, as part of the necessarily gradual course of processing the truth, reconciling the generations and moving ahead as individuals and a nation.
Fiennes’ middle-aged Michael, who is seen early on trying to connect with his daughter, comes to the fore in the latter stages as the Michael-Hanna drama plays out its final act in an ironic manner that speaks to the potential of rehabilitation and never-too-late education. One of the film’s best scenes is a sort-of postscript, in which Michael goes to New York City to visit a wealthy, stylish woman (Lena Olin) who wrote a book with her mother about surviving the camp and the subsequent conflagration where Hanna exercised authority. Interchange between Fiennes and Olin has a snap and electricity missing elsewhere despite dedicated efforts across the board.
A central problem with “The Reader” as a film is that one can never look inside the character of Hanna. Her life and behavior are invariably assessed from the outside — what she represents to Michael, the way the court and history take stock of her actions — but never by her. In fact, she denies that her own self-evaluation is of any importance. “It doesn’t matter what I feel, it doesn’t matter what I think,” she insists when asked about wartime atrocities. “The dead are still dead.”
Winslet supplies a haunting shell to this internally decimated woman, one who can perhaps momentarily escape from her shame through sex but for whom there is no past she can possibly face and no future to anticipate. She and Kross enact the intimate scenes with impressive delicacy and credible desire, and the young German actor, who has rounder, fleshier features than Fiennes but still manages the match, shows confidence and promise (much is made in the press materials about how the production shut down until his 18th birthday before embarking upon the sex scenes). Fiennes deftly invests the grown-up Michael with an emotional limp, and the decision to have all the actors speak English with a softly suggestive German accent works pretty well.
Supporting cast and locations have been smartly chosen, and the modern Germany of the later scenes contrasts sharply with the Old World hangover look of the ‘50s. Score by Nico Muhly is supple, unusual and superbly supportive.
Film looks splendid, pretty much a given when both Chris Menges and Roger Deakins are credited. Reportedly, Deakins prepared the picture and began shooting, mostly with the Fiennes material. But when the production halted for a while during the writers’ strike, Deakins moved on to “Doubt” and Menges took over as cinematographer when lensing recommenced.
The late producing partners Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack receive a special “in loving memory” dedication. Another producer, Scott Rudin, removed his name from the film a couple of months ago due to disputes with Harvey and Bob Weinstein over rushing to finish it before year’s end.