As The Reader opens in theatres, one must inevitably ask oneself one simple question. Do we really need another Holocaust movie? Another film of voyeuristic tragedy, laden with the requisite disturbing imagery of emaciated death's-door victims in their ragged striped pajamas and jack-booted Aryan thugs with twisted mouths and rabid Luftwaffe eyes? The whole idea, though based on the most horrific events in human history and most deserving of analysis, has been done so to death that the very genre of Holocaust cinema is fraught with the dangers of oversaturation and eventual dismissal of desire. Yet with nary a swastika in sight, this particular "Holocaust" film, with quotes firmly entrenched, is the most atypical of the genre, as it takes place years after the end of World War II and revolves around the love/hate story of a former concentration camp guard and the teenage boy she seduces before he ever knows of her past. More than a Holocaust film per se, The Reader is more the tale of how the next generation of Germans lived with what had happened just a decade prior.
The Reader opens with a sufficiently chilly Ralph Fiennes trying his best to appease an obvious one-night stand with a quick breakfast before rushing her out of his apartment. We can see right away that this is a man who is afraid of any sort of real human contact, any show of true emotion - possibly a role written with Fiennes cold demeanor in mind. It will take the well-used filmic device of flashback to find out the cause of such emotional distance as we are transported back to a Germany barely a decade past the second world war and a society living in an almost universal sense of disillusionment, and in many cases ignorant denial. This is The Reader means to show. Not the Holocaust and its myriad of victims, but how the future will remember them.
As we journey back, we find fifteen year old Michael Berg (Fiennes' younger self played by a boyishly intrepid David Kross) as he stumbles, sickly and mired in pain, from a trolley into the pouring rain of a cold afternoon. It is here we first meet Hanna Schmitz, a thirty-five year old trolley worker, played with a solemn unease by the most versatile actress in film today, Kate Winslet. Hanna takes the boy in and nurses him back to health. In a subsequent visit, Hanna and Michael become lovers and they spend the Summer of 1958 in a state of oblivious bliss. He bacoming a man through the sexual prowess of Hanna and she coming alive once more in a way she thought she could never know. It is also here where we see Hanna first become obsessed with Michael reading to her. Reading anything, from Ulysses to Lady Chatterley to the Adventures of Tintin. It becomes an affair obsessed not just with sex, but with the act of reading too. It is an affair that abruptly ends as Hanna one day vanishes from Michael's life.
It will be another eight years until Michael, now a young law student at university, will finally find his Hanna again. Now on trial for war crimes, Michael's lost feelings of love become twisted up inside of him as he now wonders if he can still love this woman who has been turned into a veritable monster right in front of his face. It is here we find out another secret of Hanna's. A secret (albeit a rather obvious one to even the most casual of viewers) that though trivial in comparison to her crimes, nonetheless haunts her so much more. It is here where Michael begins to struggle with what he should feel and what he should do and it is in this internal conflict that the emotional crux of The Reader becomes evident, but it is much much more that is at the sociopsychological center of this film.
The main criticism that has been heaped upon The Reader since its release (the book too has been derided ever since Oprah made it a bestseller) is its rather sympathetic view of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal. Even in old age she shows no remorse. The book and subsequent film have given a human face to evil so to speak and it is quite the slippery slope when the subject is the oft-dramatized holocaust. Yet everything is not so black and white as The Readers critics would have you think. There is good and bad in everyone and it is in this very face of humanity that we to can see ourselves. The main crux of The Reader is not so much what Hannah did in her past, or why she did it, but how a generation of people could sit back and watch it happen. How they could sit back and allow such atrocities to take place. And it is not just this aforementioned generation we must look at, but our own as well.
We too, in our casual acceptance of Bush's "war on terror" and such ugly legacies as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, are to blame for the atrocities that go on in our world as we sit back and watch television, stuff our faces and go to the movies (and yes, in an attempt to not sound too pious, I am counting myself among these indifferent souls). Those who watched slavery rend a country for 300+ years and followed suit by heaping hated rhetoric upon anyone with dark skin through Jim Crow and beyond. Those who happily locked away anyone of even remotely-looking Japanese descent after that day of supposed infamy. Those who even today clutch onto the purse a little bit tighter when a black man walks by or becomes nervous at the airport when anyone with Middle Eastern features gets in line or crack gay jokes as if it is perfectly acceptable to do so. We all, societally-speaking, breed hate and it is this very idea that is at the heart of The Reader.
Perhaps the film does fall prey to a myriad of directorial cliches and easy-outs (not to mention an almost completely ridiculous, and quite obvious finale), after all this is Stephen Daldry, the man responsible for the leaping lassitudes of Billy Elliot and the strained strumping of The Hours, but despite its many cinematic and storytelling flaws, The Reader does work on some level (and not just from the standpoint of such an outstanding central performance by Winslet) and so The Reader, in the end, is not so much a sympathetic look at Hanna, but a questioning one and a deeply rooted one at that. Kate Winslet jokingly asked the same question I opened with when she appeared on the hilariously in-joked TV show Extras, and followed it up with the bold statement that one must star in a holocaust movie to win an Oscar, and essentially prophesied herself into a very possible Oscar win for Best Actress. Perhaps we do not need another Holocaust film, and perhaps The Reader fails on some really important notes, but still, this is a film, despite its heap of criticisms and probable eventual inconsequence, that, if nothing else, gives a fresh face to the genre. [01/09/09]