Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Reader (2008)


There are two films out that focus on the uniquely vexing reality and dilemma of German guilt and shame. The first is Valkyrie, which uses wartime conscientiousness as the springboard for its thriller plot. The second is The Reader, which never takes place during World War II, the Holocaust or the Third Reich's reign, but is informed by the reverberations that still pulsate through the people of Germany like so many ripples that disturb a stream. Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and a young, impressive actor named David Kross, based on a novel written by German author Bernhard Schlink, adapted to the screen by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry—the latter two of whom conspired to respectively write and direct the 2002 drama The Hours—the film is brimming with considerable aptitude. The Reader makes its intentions abundantly clear: Schlink and Daldry, as with The Hours, are nothing short of punctilious in their formalism and classicism. The Reader is handsomely produced, exceedingly well-acted, sumptuously photographed by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins and smoothly directed by Daldry.

So why does it never quite break free from itself? Why do its ideas only provoke consideration and never quite move? Some of the fault may rest with the structure—the plot, even when it finally moves into the expected-but-dramatic territory of post-Holocaust German self-examination (several scenes of which are quite cerebrally fecund and engrossingly presented)—never breaks free from the expectations. The film's emotional resonance rests with a decision made by Michael Berg (who is played by Kross when he is in his teens, Fiennes when much older), one that is rightfully portrayed as paralyzing in its self-contradictions—in an effort to not experience crushing shame, he elects to remain silent, doomed to his own shame for the rest of his life—though the film does at least seem to lean in the direction that his choice was one stemming from cowardice, and, indeed, shame.

One issue at hand with The Reader may be that too much of the film plays like an extended performance rather than a completely living motion picture. The Reader is proficiently gripping at times, with its amassing of philosophical quandaries and rigorously applied legalisms, but what lingers, interestingly, is the first act. In this way, perhaps, the film is best when the mystery has yet to be revealed, and yet, it is here that it is also the most predictable, if a film's running time could be divided into “more predictable” or “less predictable” subsets. What may account for this is that Daldry's visual literacy seems most sharply aware and trenchant in the first great stretch of his film. When the “mystery” is finally unlocked, as the film's cryptic poster promises it finally will be, Daldry seems to allow the exposition and drama to largely speak for itself. This is not a necessarily an entirely wrongful decision, but it does lead to a certain feeling of unevenness from which The Reader cannot escape.

The Reader begins in West Germany in the 1950s, with the aforementioned teenager named Michael Berg catching scarlet fever on a cold, rainy day. By sheer chance he finds himself vomiting in the vicinity of a woman's residence. The cinematography exquisitely captures the symbiotic relationship, soon to become an affair, between the two characters, as the mysterious woman's face is obstructed by darkness. (The ethereal camerawork by Menges and Deakins is continually breathtaking.) What the viewer is allowed—and indeed encouraged—to notice is just how readily this woman, Hanna Schmitz (a flawless Winslet), takes up the duty of washing away this youth's vomit, and then taking care of him, and finally bathing him. Why? Who is this woman? Did she become used to such sights, and to such chores as cleaning up after others, bathing them, caring for them? The motifs pique curiosity. Was she a nurse? The answers are revealed much later. What matters in the first act is the physical and spiritual pulchritude and healing that takes place as Hanna bathes Michael, and they finally initiate a sexual affair, which is handled with equal parts deftness and frankness by Hare and Daldry.

Without daring to simply “make excuses” for atrocities committed by Germans, the story posits questions to which there are few comforting answers. Perhaps, the film suggests, if Hitler's Germany had been reading more books rather than burning them, such odious crimes could not have become so commonplace at that specific time in history. As the eponymous reader—Michael—allows an awed Hanna to listen to the words of Tolstoy, Twain, Thackeray and Homer, the story's incisive point that illiteracy and ignorance may have been the greatest aids in constructing the Nazis' genocidal industry, rings true. The Reader brings into view the role of the average, poor German worker, an economically abused class following the Great War, and asks stingingly dolorous questions. For this the film must be commended.

The Reader's fitting literateness may be viewed in variegated manners. Daldry's direction indicates that his continuing interesting in feminine psychology and pride—the latter characteristic of Hanna supplies the bulwark for his drama's very efficacy—may yet find its most captivating expression in the near future. The Reader has many fine touches, polished as it is with a delicate methodicalness that is never less than intriguing. And yet for all of its attributes, something is amiss, and it lessens the film's impact: perhaps the very quality that makes the film accessible also hampers it—it is, somehow, simply too slick for its own good. As the picture arrives at its conclusion, this realization deepens, as the actions of every character seem all too preordained, choked off and statically presented after the particulars of Hanna's grave secret are revealed. So the ideas must suffice, percolating as they do. When the young Michael and a fellow law student quarrel with their professor about the injustices of a Germany they wish to forget (one student cannot bear the discussion and promptly exits the room), the dialogue pierces the viewer's protective separation from the film. For a country, these matters have not easily gone away, quietly in the night. Hanna's statement—the dead are still dead—may be interpreted differently, depending on the viewpoint. What to say? Perhaps only, De mortuis ni nisi bonum. Of the dead, nothing but good.

23 comments:

nick plowman said...

I'm looking forward to this so much...

Sam Juliano said...

I will get back to this review later today, as I admit I love this film deeply, placing it #5 on my ten best list of 2008. I will provide a comprehensive consideration of your good-looking essay and of my own feelings and observations of this affecting and beautiful film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha, yes, Nick, I know you're in need of another Kate fix. No matter what one thinks of the film itself, she is extraordinary here.

How the Globes considered her a "Supporting Actress" for this work, though, I will simply never understand.

Sam: it was with a heavy heart that I found myself unable to love The Reader, knowing that you and Allan both do adore it so. Perhaps more than any other 2008 release, this is one I wish I liked/loved more than I do. It's good, in all of the ways I describe in my review, but I could not help but feel as though it was strangely incomplete.

Nevertheless, I look forward to your sure-to-be illuminating thoughts.

Maria said...

I want to see this but it sounds pretty distant. Good review!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Maria. It is somewhat distant, but that honestly wasn't my main problem with it. I cannot deny it has a number of fine qualities; I do wish the sum equalled the parts, at least for me personally.

Dorothy Porker said...

Very interesting review. I'm somewhere in between you and Sam -- it absolutely stayed with me and it is a solid adaptation, but something felt missing. Having said that, the film still haunts me, so that's as good a tribute :)

Any toughts on Olin? I thought that she practically walked away with the film in that last scene of hers.

SPOILER: Wasn't Kate's "the...the" scene sheer genius? That's the one moment I found myself crying.

curly daggett said...

theres another movie coming out about the russian resistance with the guy from the new james bond movies too. i heard that kate winslet was not authentic when she accepted her awards. was she a nurse? i can tell u from eperience u donn't have to be a nurse to clean up vomit and then have sex with a young boy. this movie is not just another lame holocaust movie. can't wait for the wrestler dude!!!!!!!!!

Alexander Coleman said...

Dorothy, thank you for the comment, thoughts and kind words.

I thought Olin was very good in her role, yes; she brought a fine melange of hurt, anger, but, finally, acceptance, as well as resolute gravitas to the small part. She and Fiennes played off of one another wonderfully.

Thanks, curly, for the bizarre comment.

Dorothy Porker said...

It was a hypnotizing duet, indeed. God, so many good actors in this film, I almost imploded. I look forward to another viewing.

And um...yeah, "bizarre" is the right descriptor. lol.

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Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Dorothy, there was a banquet of fine acting to be had in The Reader. It was good to see Olin again!

Duncan, I'm sure there is help for you somewhere.

TURBO THE TERRIBLE said...

KATE WINSLET BEING NAKED RULES.

Alexander Coleman said...

She is no eyesore, Turbo.

Sam Juliano said...

It seems rather fitting that i should enter my response to Alexander Coleman's typically fecund review of Stephen Daldry's THE READER on the day it 'shocked the world' with its completely unexpected nomination for Best Picture from AMPAS. While the snub of the animation masterpiece WALL-E was unforgivable, they at least made some smaller amends by nominating this metaphorical drama of disjuction over generations as well as two other wholly deserving films in that category, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.
Mr. Coleman's review is rather an oddity in his spectacular archive: the sum of its parts leave a far more compelling impression than his unearned summary judgement. He seems to love the film as he admits it is "handsomely produced", "exceedingly well-acted" beautifully photographed by Chris Menges and Roger deakins and "smoothly directed" by the gifted Stephen Daltry.
In a beautifully written sensory paragraph,where Mr. Coleman proceeds to introduce the film's premise (time and place)he glowingly reports:
"The cinematography exquisitely captures the symbiotic relationship, soon to become an affair, between the two characters, as the mysterious woman's face is obstructed by darkness. (The ethereal camerawork by Menges and Deakins is continually breathtaking.) What the viewer is allowed—and indeed encouraged—to notice is just how readily this woman, Hanna Schmitz (a flawless Winslet), takes up the duty of washing away this youth's vomit, and then taking care of him...." et al.
Yet Mr. Coleman admits that there is "something amiss" despite the stellar individual components. It plays, he says, (in one objection) "as performance rather than a complete film" even if it is "gripping at times, philosophical quandaries and applied legalisms" and so forth. (Your discussion of the film's "emotional resonance" and "cowardice and shame" is superbly posed, by the way) And your historical lead-in of German guilt and shame, stating that there are two films out there now that deal with such, is similarly excellent.

I don't believe myself that anything is amiss in this extraordinarily resonant, passionate and deeply felt film, that expressively and complexity paints the intimacies of a complex relationship with the underpinnings of national shame and conscience. The film is beautifully framed, effectively showing young people distancing themselves from authority, to forge their own identities and the story chronicles the dichotomy of love and hate, and aggressive and passivity, of betrayal and loyalty, all woven into the fabric of a national identity tarnished with inhumanity and gross injustice. It's a story and a film that moves one to the deepest recesses of their soul, and Mr. Daldry and company (David Hare is again up to the task with a spare and beautifully-modulated screenplay)have crafted a film that matters. Nico Muhly, a composer whose sophomore effort this is produces an expressive and sublime score that delicately accentuates the screenplay's emotional chords, and all the performers (especially Ms. Winslet, Mr. Kross) give committed, piercing performances. Ms. Winslet is greater here than she was in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and probably deserves the Oscar. It was nice seeing Bruno Ganz too.
THE READER is a delicately shaded film with dark recesses, melancholy textures and elegiac context, that for its occasionally disjointed structure has a full and lasting resonance on the viewer. it's truly one of the best films of the year.

Mr. Coleman's review, however is impeccable observant and defended with a sense of fair play and typical persuasiveness. One could hardly ask for more.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, one could not ask for a more thorough and thoughtful look at both The Reader and my review of such. I'm most happy for you that this film (quite surprisingly) has found intself in the Best Picture and Best Director races--something I did not believe was going to occur, as many others similarly believed the film and its director would not.

You make many terrific points and counterpoints. And I cannot disagree with anything you say, definitively, except that for me, personally, the film, for all its beauty--which is at least considerable--did not keep me entirely engaged throughout its running time. I interpret this weaker response to the film than yours to mean that I was probably blind to the attributes of the latter stretch of the film--though I loved the aforementioned (in this comments thread) scene between Fiennes and Olin, for one--but I do think the film could have been truly great with some stronger pacing from a little over the one-hour mark onward.

It is impeccably acted, sumptuously mounted and sensitively conjured, though--and while my review could possibly be seen as something of a dismissal of it, I did not intend it to be for anyone. It's an interesting film, and very much worth seeing. I just wish I loved it instead of admiring it. Interestingly, I felt almost exactly the same way about The Hours. Haha. I'm sure it's just me.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

First of all, for some reason I find Ms. Winslet (or Mrs. Mendes?) more desirable, shall we say, when clothed -- I can't quite put my finger on why. I think that vulnerability -- or appearing so, through nudity or emotional candor -- is not necessarily attractive on everyone. Or perhaps it's the character's reluctance to succumb to vulnerability, remaining entirely in control -- of her own emotions and actions as much as Michael's -- even when mounted. Maybe it's purely a matter of taste...

In any case I felt, as AC did, that the film was not quite up to snuff (I look forward to debating this point with my colleague Sam Juliano during our Oscar blog series) for a variety of reasons, some of which I've iterated elsewhere throughout the blogosphere. You propose an interesting alternative reading here, however, Alexander:

Perhaps, the film suggests, if Hitler's Germany had been reading more books rather than burning them, such odious crimes could not have become so commonplace...the story's incisive point that illiteracy and ignorance may have been the greatest aids in constructing the Nazis' genocidal industry, rings true.

This is an appealing interpretation -- and outside of the film an excellent point -- but not an altogether evident one, unless I'm misunderstanding. It is, after all, Hanna's illiteracy that, if exposed, would partially exonerate her -- not from following Hitler, but from the projected status of leadership within her ring of defendants. It is more in her staunch determination to obscure her ignorance and innocence that we find the classic qualities of a potential Nazi (although I also think the film is rather too cavalier with dusty German stereotypes). I've never read the book on which the film is based but supposedly the theme of illiteracy is linked to attempts at comprehending genocide in the aftermath -- and the futility of semiotics therein. This would make sense and is quite a piquant concept...but in the film I think the characters are always teetering on the brink of allegory, never quite plunging off the precipice; determining what the film was attempting to "say" about the holocaust was, to this viewer, an exasperating affair.

Also, Alexander, if you ever find yourself in the east bay and in the mood for film debate over boba tea, drop me a line...

Alexander Coleman said...

Joseph, I think you're right about Winslet's Hanna being portrayed as remaining "in control," even when completely, physically naked. It reminded me quite a bit of Little Children, in which she also repeatedly appeared in the nude, and, again, seemed to be projected as a kind of femme manipulator extraordinaire (though the setting and extent to which she was in the 2006 suburban seriocomic farce renders this in a drastically different context).

As to your other major point, I agree that Hanna's illiteracy is precisely what would exonerate her "from the projected status of leadership within her ring of defendants"; I'm simply saying that it seemed like The Reader was suggesting that, like so many other Germans growing up in the interwar years, socio-economic impoverishment, and educational ignorance, rendered them particularly susceptible to the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

It is, like you say, a "piquant concept," though it could easily have been overdone. I do agree that the film is perhaps too cavalier about certain German tropes--and I most especially agree that deciphering what the film was trying to say about the Holocaust was a fatiguing enterprise.

I did not interpret her pride and determination to obscure her ignorance as being representative of the characteristics of a classic Nazi. The way I interpreted it, the film (and book? like you, I've never read it) is saying that Hanna's system of values is markedly different from that which today would be more recognizable. The vast majority of theoretical defendants of today, it seems, would likely yell out, "I can't even read or write! How could I have written this report?" Hanna, however, is ashamed of her illiteracy, and did everything she could to hide it, even from her lover. To us, nothing could be more evil than the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and having your name forever associated with such wicked undertakings would compel us to use any defense. For her, however, she would finally rather be sentenced to the worst penalty for such crimes than confess to being woefully benighted. I found this, by itself, quite fascinating.

In any case, I completely understand what you're saying here: "the characters the characters are always teetering on the brink of allegory, never quite plunging off the precipice..." It seems like The Reader does not especially work as an allegory, though, since we ourselves are still questioning what, precisely, the film was attempting to state. As a result, the film finally felt muddled--although, I'm willing to admit that some of the muddled, sallow aspects of the film are intentional. The Reader tries to let the viewer decide, to experience the titular character's shame and lack of resolve, so perhaps trying to look for a clear statement is not the proper course here.

Nevertheless, thank you for the offer across the Bay. I'm sure I will take you up on it sometime! Thank you for the very richly detailed and kind comment, Joseph.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Not to prolong the conversation ad nauseum, but just a few clarifying points:

I did not interpret her pride and determination to obscure her ignorance as being representative of the characteristics of a classic Nazi.

Nor did I, but I was attempting to "riff" off of your earlier analysis that educational ignorance left Germany susceptible to Nazism, an excellent point. My contribution is simply to suggest that part of the allure of Nazism was the flamboyant rejection of traditional education. In other words, there could not have been so many people burning books unless a good number of them a) could not read (as you point out) and b) were seduced by the idea of defacing the very notion of text itself. Granted, repressing one's shame is not necessarily considered a classic Nazi trait, although they are typically depicted as exemplars of stoicism (and I think even Winslet, to her discredit, occasionally allow herself to indulge in this).

she would finally rather be sentenced to the worst penalty for such crimes than confess to being woefully benighted. I found this, by itself, quite fascinating.

So did I, but -- and I don't mean this to be arrogant -- I wasn't quite sure what to "do" with that fascination, how to elevate the plot-turn to the level of a truly novel concept illustration. Perhaps I wasn't trying hard enough (or I was too tired, a definite possibility).

perhaps trying to look for a clear statement is not the proper course here.

Probably not, and yet, I somehow think it's impossible (not morally questionable but literally impossible) to attempt a film about the Holocaust that resists the event's cumbersome ethical baggage. One of the characters even shouts in a mishandled scene: "What is there to understand?" And it seems like the film DOES essay some sort of comprehension (or at the very least it attempts to make sense of our inability to comprehend). I'm actually quite a sucker for open-ended films, I just felt that this one was muddled not because of intentional ambiguity but because it attempted to untangle too gnarled of a sociological puzzle, and then relented. But I will say that your piece, and our conversation here, has forced me to appreciate moments I didn't immediately.

Nevertheless, thank you for the offer across the Bay. I'm sure I will take you up on it sometime!

Any time!

Alexander Coleman said...

Joseph, thank you for the additional, clarifying thoughts. Much appreciated!

I now see with greater comprehension what you were saying in your earlier post, concerning my review's point about German benightedness being linked to the Holocaust by The Reader.

And I must admit, while I tried to play devil's advocate in my last comment here, I have to largely concur with you--ambiguity in cinema is a wonderful attribute on general principle, but like you, I found the film unable to make sense of the sociological exercise it seemed to urgently move towards, only to find no greater sense of it, or the events the film depicts in the microcosmic case of Hanna and this one incident she had some kind of hand in. Which seems to have become a lost point among many who watch the film, so awkwardly affixed these separate properties are in the film--at the very least, Hanna was the stereotypical "good German," just following orders. The film could have used more bravery, on behalf of the message on which it seemed to briefly focus: grappling with the vexing question of whether or not there are greater or lesser gradations of culpability.

Ultimately, I have to echo your pointed statement--which is that you did not know what to "do" with the "plot-turn," as you say. It sums up my general reaction to the film--it stirred me enough to rub my bearded chin, but little more, unfortunately. I'm still wondering what to "do" with it, though I admire parts of it.

And, though I normally don't agree with hyper-sensitive critics about such matters, I have to admit that, in the case of The Reader, I do understand where those who criticize it for "trivializing the Holocaust" are coming from. I don't agree with this sentiment, but the film seems to hand them the proverbial sword with which to run it through.

tim watts said...

Do I lose points if I admit that this movie did nothing to move me and was sorta boring? I like Kate Winslet but not much else hit me hard. It felt like what you say. Basically a well made adaptation of a novel. But it was too polite and restrained for it's own good.

Alexander Coleman said...

No, Tim, no points lost. There seems to be an ongoing debate about the film, whether the emotional distancing is simply the film's disciplined and unsentimental characteristic or an actual failing. I would contend that the film was striving to be more of an emotional experience than it ended up being for many who viewed it.

tim watts said...

thank you, Alexander. I just found it plodding and boring. But Kate Winslet is something else. I just wish I liked even one of her two movies this year. But good luck to her anyway.

Alexander Coleman said...

Understood, Tim.