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.