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David Kross & Kate Winslet (Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company)

Directed by
Stephen Daldry
Produced by
Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti & Redmond Morris
Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink

Released by the Weinstein Company

USA/Germany. 123 min. Rated R
Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz & Lena Olin

The Reader very carefully builds a puzzle of emotional and philosophical questions about moral responsibility. For its “What would you do if…?” premise to work, Michael Berg (David Kross in his English-language debut) is 15 when he accidentally meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who has to be just about 36. He represents the immediate post-World War II generation of West Germans coming of age as the streets around him are still being cleared of bombed rubble. Hanna, a street car conductor living alone, represents the generation who came of age under the Nazis who, like Michael’s strict parents, are silent about the past.

The two turn the summer of 1958 into their own longer and more passionate version of Summer of ’42. Their lovemaking takes an odd twist, though, when she suggests a unique foreplay ritual—she wants him to read to her first. Just as she had been teacher to him about physical pleasure, he starts with books from school, Horace in Latin and Sappho in Greek, then on through world literature. She’s as voracious and empathetic a listener—in bed and bath (there is quite a lot of nudity)—as she is a lover. Kross is marvelous at portraying a boy blooming under sensual tutelage, even as he still flirts with girls his age at school and fights with his nosy younger sister. (The producers are careful to claim that none of the sex scenes were shot until he turned 18.) He continues to sees Hanna habitually after school. Until Hanna suddenly disappears.

Unlike the book which proceeded chronologically, this summer of love is seen in the flashbacks of the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes). (Both cinematographic masters Chris Menges and Roger Deakins are credited as director of photography for the film’s exquisite look.) His memories then shift to when he was a law student. While Michael’s motivation amidst the casual and frenetic exuberance of college life is not made clear, he chooses to be one of the few participants in a seminar on the role of law in the Third Reich and its aftermath, led by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). (Except for Winslet and Fiennes, all of the German characters are portrayed by German actors speaking in English). This group’s pointed debates about individual responsibility are the weakest part of the film—adapter David Hare raises heavy-handed moral issues that the book left more open to ponder. (The novel has become required reading in German schools.)

The seminar embarks on a field trip, attending a fictionalized version of the only trials of lower-level SS officers, previously and meticulously documented in Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner’s Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965, which noted that, in fact, no SS member ever admitted guilt or implicated another in any trial. But for Michael, the historical and the theoretical become very personal in a surprising twist (that’s revealed too obviously in the trailer). It takes him years (as indicated more through Winslet’s aging make-up than Fiennes’) to reconcile his connection with Hanna. The older and wiser Michael’s acceptance of his own, hers, and his country’s faults is very moving as he finds a way to again read books to the ex-lover who he now sees in a different light and can almost understand.

When the older Michael seeks guidance from a Holocaust memoirist, actress Lena Olin adds dignity to what could have been a clunky morality lesson about guilt and catharsis. While director Stephen Daldry uses some restraint in having younger Michael walk through a preserved concentration camp, instead of repeating the usual archival atrocity footage, the sequence still feels like a too-obvious attempt to walk-in-the-shoes of another in order to make intellectual issues visual. (This scene even has him pass by the display of victims’ abandoned shoes).

The culpability of too Hollywood-attractive Nazi bureaucrats is similarly mined, but as fables, in Mark Herman’s The Boy in Striped Pajamas and Vicente Amorim’s Good, which will be released shortly. Though the sex here is more vivid than either the crimes or the soul-searching, The Reader’s somewhat more realistic approach of portraying Germans who are neither ignorant nor psychopathic may help another generation to learn from the past through fiction to confront the question, “What would you have done?” Nora Lee Mandel
December 10, 2008



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