The Weinstein Co.
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz
By Sean Chavel
For something that sounds so austere and erudite, the new Stephen Daldry film depends heavily on body language. Or at least that is what makes the film’s performances so interesting. "The Reader" is a deceptively simple title (based on Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller) that develops into something unexpectedly powerful. This Holocaust guilt epic could have been a trial to sit through if it wasn’t so emotionally stirring. I wouldn’t call the sex scenes a cheap grabber either – they’re inherent to the entire story diagram.
If you have ever had any doubts then it is about time to acknowledge Kate Winslet’s serious range of versatility first and foremost. Winslet is extraordinary in both this film and the current “Revolutionary Road,” and probably the more extraordinary when you take into account the contrast between the two roles. Both characters have love-longings but Winslet’s body language as Hanna in this film is more rigid and tense – hungry for carnal exchanges but cagey and unwilling to let her lover get to know her too well. Winslet’s April in “Revolutionary Road” is dying to let somebody know her and truly understand her well. Hanna is guarded.
In an accidental encounter in 1950s postwar Germany, Hanna befriends a 15-year old boy overcome by brief illness. Michael Berg (David Kross), who is as interested in sex as he is in books, loses his virginity to the working-class tram conductor Hanna who is at least twice his age. It all begins by Hanna getting him naked for a warm bath, and then toweling him off when he gets out. The sex is Hanna’s scheming, and Michael is all too eager to learn. In contrast, Hanna is an illiterate and Michael is an avid reader. Their afternoons comprise of lovemaking and of Michael reading Hanna selections such as Homer’s The Odyssey, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Michael deserts most of his school social engagements so he can be available for Hanna in the afternoons.
The affair ends, leaving Michael heartbroken and confused. Years pass and he becomes a law student. During the course of his semester, his law professor (the great Bruno Ganz) escorts his students to a real court trial. Observing from the top balcony, Michael sees that one of the defendants is Hanna. A heavy dose of evidence is against Hanna who doesn’t deny guilt entirely and attests to some of the accusations. The shocked Michael realizes his first love was with a Nazi war criminal.
The film has a flashback structure with Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “The Duchess”), that great English actor of conscientious reserve, as the adult Michael eternally disturbed by his childhood secrets. His first marriage has failed him though he did bear a daughter. The film goes back and forth between the court trial and the Fiennes present until we understand to what degree of guilt is vexing Michael. But the film grabs us, I think, with what will happen to Hanna’s fate.
And to how Winslet will play her: Winslet has always been able to play intellectually liberated, but Hanna is the first character that poses a greater challenge for the actress: How to play imperceptive and detached. But even that’s not so simple. Hanna is blighted by lack of education, common etiquette, mainstream emotions.
Hanna knows that she took away lives but she doesn’t understand in scope the enormity of the Nazi’s atrocities. Hanna isn’t articulate enough to fully understand the heinous degrees of her crimes – she is charged alongside with another group of women for burning Jews inside a Church building while on a death march transport – but she is gloomily aware of her ignorance. (Her illiteracy is symbolic of the German’s peoples willed ignorance of World War II.) For ignorance alone she feels she deserves persecution. Hanna begins to volunteer self-incriminating testimony that doesn’t pertain to her. Michael, a court spectator, has to choose whether to stand and interfere with information that might protect Hanna from full charges. The levity, however simple it might sound, is Michael using the opportunity to read to Hanna as his atonement. Note: This Daldry film, which is truly sincere and emotionally honest, is a vast improvement over his pompous “The Hours” from several years back.