The Reader

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One of the chief criticisms being thrown around regarding The Reader, the new film that finally won Kate Winslet her long overdue Oscar, is that it’s yet another Holocaust film. First of all, they’re picking the wrong genre to decry, why doesn’t anybody ever get in a huff over the new teen-dance drama or the latest Steve Martin/Pink Panther movie? Second, and more importantly, the film’s not really about the Holocaust at all. For me, The Reader is about guilt. Not just about an individual’s guilt (although that’s in here, too), but about a nation’s guilt.

Germany’s role in the Holocaust is mentioned in off-hand shots, in throw-away lines, and in the dialogue of a frustrated law student, who wonders how they can choose who should be put on trial, when the whole country went along with it. The Reader is being marketed as another “forbidden romance” film or as “another Holocaust movie,” but it asks some alarming questions about a country’s responsibility.

This is Stephen Daldry’s third feature film (and his third Oscar nomination as Best Director. Good track record), and, like his last film, The Hours, it has a structure that plays with time. It starts off in the early 90s in Germany, with a middle-aged, emotionally despondent man named Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). It then flashes backwards in time to his youth, where as a 15 year old (now played by David Kross) he strikes up a sexual relationship with a much older woman named Hannah (played by Kate Winslet, in her Oscar winning role). The film then fast-forwards several years, where Michael is now in law school, and observing the trial of several former camp guards for war crimes. One of them is Hannah.

The screenplay by David Hare (based upon the novel by Bernard Schlink) is a puzzle, an ethically murky period piece. If it feels cold and distant I would argue that’s because it’s main characters are cold and distant. This is not a film that leaves with warm and fuzzy thoughts. It’s a well cast film, and Winslet is very, very good indeed, but I still feel that her Oscar is more a “sorry we didn’t give you one sooner” award than for the film itself. Kross has a challenging role playing Michael both as a 15 year old and as a 23 year old, and Fiennes brings depth to a role that very well could have been a throwaway performance. Bruno Ganz gives a good supporting performance as a law professor, and Lena Olin gives grace to her two roles.

The Reader is a fine film that asks some questions that may hit a little too close to home.

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