Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
In the past, I’ve taken a stand on what I think about Holocaust dramas. I get why they are made and I get why this is a period in history that needs to be continually brought up and discussed, but I find it harder and harder to get worked up these days after seeing so many of them. It’s an interesting moral position to be in. I don’t want to say that I don’t care, because that’s not the case. I just wonder how much real-world horror I can handle. So, naturally, it seems like every other movie still on my Oscar lists to watch is a Holocaust drama. Enter The Reader.
At the very least, The Reader gives us a story that, while it certainly involves the terrible events in Europe, does so only tangentially. In truth, we’re not even aware that this is a film that touches on this period in history until we are a good way through it. It starts more as a romance than anything else, although it might be the least romantic romance of the last ten years.
In Germany in the 1950s, 15 year-old Michael Berg (David Kross, not to be confused with American comedian David Cross) finds himself suddenly very ill. In fact, he’s vomiting in an alleyway. A woman (Kate Winslet) walks by and sees him, reacting with disgust. Moments later, she has returned, and cleans Michael up and gets him home. It turns out that Michael has scarlet fever, and is bedridden for months. When he’s back on his feet, he seeks the woman out. Eventually he finds her.
Despite their age difference, the two soon begin a sexual relationship, one instigated by the woman. It’s not until they have had several trysts that Michael learns her name is Hanna Schmitz. Their relationship continues for roughly the length of a summer and comprises of two things: they have a lot of sex and he reads to her. One day, Michael’s 16th birthday, in fact, Hanna learns that she is to be promoted from her job as a tram conductor to working in the office. That night, she packs up her belongings and vanishes without a word.
It’s not until Michael is in college that he encounters Hanna again. As a law student, Michael is enrolled in a seminar that concerns the ideas of German guilt for what happened in World War II. While the class is happening, there is a war crimes trial happening nearby, and the class goes to attend. The trial concerns the actions of six women who worked as guards at a concentration camp, and one of the six women is Hanna. This leaves Michael in a very conflicted position. He still clearly has feelings for her, but is suddenly confronted by the life she led before he knew her.
The plot takes a few twists and turns from here, but the big reveal here is that Hanna is illiterate. Many of the major decisions in her life—her disappearance several years before and even her decision to sign up for the SS—have happened because of her illiteracy. She vanished from Michael’s life because she couldn’t work in an office. She left her job in a factory to join the SS for the same reason. Her illiteracy becomes an issue in the trial when the other women on trial accuse her of writing a report claiming responsibility for the deaths of 300 prisoners in a fire. As a result of this, her sentence is much harsher than that of the other women.
What follows is an interesting moral dilemma for Michael. How does he react to the sudden presence of Hanna in his life again, and how does he deal with any feelings he might have that contrast with her past? The testimony during the trial is particularly difficult on him based on his past history with Hanna. This is especially true when a survivor named Ilana Mather (played by Alexandra Maria Lara during the trial and Lena Olin later) takes the stand and discusses the instance of the fire.
Michael is played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes as someone still struggling with the moral issues he faces concerning Hanna and how his relationship with her has affected virtually every other relationship in his life.
The story is an interesting one, a unique tale concerning the Holocaust because it only touches on those events in a tangential way. Instead, it’s much more about the lingering effects of the Holocaust and how it in many ways changed the course of the lives of people who would seem to be distant from its effects. In a short-sighted way, it’s about the problem of illiteracy, but only someone seeing nothing but the surface of the film would think that this is what The Reader is actually about.
The performances beyond the story are what sell the film. Kate Winslet won an Oscar for this role, and while I like Kate Winslet, it seems in ways that she won for the role and not the performance. David Kross went unloved come Oscar time, and I’m not sure why. In many ways, his performance is the central one of the film, and the one that is the most sympathetic and most affecting.
It’s an odd story, though. It’s internally consistent and interesting in the telling, but now that the film is done, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I think it’s good enough to recommend seeing, but I’m not convinced it’s good enough to watch a second time. Give Lena Olin more screen time, and I might change my mind.
Why to watch The Reader: The moral dilemma is an interesting one.
Why not to watch: Needs more Lena Olin.