With all the hours of community service I’ve been putting in, dedicated blogging time has been sparse. Affected most, it seems, has been my continually delayed review of The Reader. Most of you won’t even remember this movie existed, but I assure you it did. The pain it caused was very real.
It’s a long running and mostly lame joke of Hollywood that all it takes for your movie to rack up Oscar nominations is some combination of the Holocaust, slavery, or mental retardation. (Preferably all three if you’re really shooting for the stars.) What’s disappointing is when that joke is actually proven true; the latest proof Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, which garnered five nominations at the 81st Academy Awards. On paper – where it started as a 1995 novel – the story’s interesting enough: a young man falls into a sexual/literary (hot!) relationship with a mysterious woman, discovering years later that she was a Nazi and attempting to come to terms with the revelation. Translated into film? Umm…
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Reader is impossible to judge as a work of cinema alone because it so clearly got its start as a Weinstein Company Mad Lib. Sex. Nazis. Forbidden Love. Roger Deakins. Harvey and Co. sat down for a lunch meeting and asked “how do we get nominated for a bunch of Oscars?” After they figured it out, they high-fived and ordered another round of pizza. That’s honestly the genesis of this movie. Brutish and bold, they followed through with an equally aggressive post-release campaign that resulted in the aforementioned nominations. Along the way, of course, they had to make a film.
That film is about Michael Berg (David Kross), a teenager in post-WWII Germany who becomes romantically involved with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Hanna is a tram conductor who looks nothing like a tram conductor. She also likes having sex with 15-year-old Michael, but she is not a pedophile. She is also hiding a few SECRETS.
One of those secrets is that she was a Nazi – specifically a concentration camp guard responsible for the death of 300 Jewish women. That doesn’t do much for her datability. But the other secret, the one they don’t advertise…
The one that’s so shocking, so emotionally jarring it will have you pondering every value you hold dear…
… Is that she can’t read. She’s illiterate. Hanna is a hot, illiterate Nazi.
I’m all for movies that tackle difficult subject matter from new perspectives, that attempt to elicit sympathy or at least understanding for people and events that are unquestionably monstrous. But when your movie hinges on the revelation that one of your main characters CAN’T READ? And the third act features a READING MONTAGE? Something has gone terribly wrong*.
Let’s be clear: what’s so ridiculous about this movie is not necessarily the literacy issue itself (it was in the book, and that was supposedly good) but rather the way it is handled with so little grace. Instead of expanding our perception of Hanna and Michael’s relationship, the shocking “truth” of the courtroom scene reduces it to an almost predictable Hollywood romance. With some minor tonal adjustments, it could have been a hilarious dark romantic comedy called I’m In Love With A Nazi. As is, it’s just emotionally dissonant crap.
I started to worry leaving the film when I realized that apart from frustration, I had registered almost no emotional response. This is a movie about the Holocaust, one of the most atrocious acts in human history – was I a monster for feeling next to nothing? Well, sort of. But a more accurate answer is “no, it’s the movie’s fault.” The Reader is an altogether polished and clean-looking and superficially well-constructed film… but one that’s almost totally sterile as a result. If it hits you, it does so academically – because you know you’re SUPPOSED to feel something. The courtroom scene does raise some provocative questions about the nature of evil and morality, but quickly stamps those out to service an all too predictable story. Even Hanna Schmitz could have telescoped the ending from a mile away, and SHE COULDN’T READ.
So Kate Winslet. As always, she does a fine job capturing the gray moral world of her character. She is equally effective in early and later scenes, playing both young and old Hanna with keen understanding. To feel genuine sympathy for this woman who helped exterminate people is no easy feat. But Winslet is an actor through and through, and most assuredly the best part of an otherwise schlocky movie.
Her co-stars aren’t bad, either. Kross, as young Michael, navigates a very tough role with grace. It could have easily been very jokey and ridiculous (he’s having sex with a Nazi), but he tempers this as best he can. Ralph Fiennes, does well (I could have said “fiennes”) with what little time he has, but like everyone is brought down by the absurdities of the film. There’s not much you can do when you’re up against a reading montage.
So yeah – if you haven’t already done so, ignore this film. There are better Kate Winslet movies, better Stephen Daldry movies… even better reading movies, I think. (Probably not.) Life is too short to spend it fattening Harvey Weinstein’s wallet and/or stomach.
* (In an alternate dimension – where I’d like this film to be – its real trailer ends with an adorable flourish: close-up of Hanna slowly writing, on a piece of loose-leaf paper, the title of the film in crayon. Upbeat choir in the background. Credits.)