Can a film about the Holocaust be sexy? If it stars Kate Winslet naked, then, well, maybe. Fact is, Winslet's bang-up job as a dour ex-Nazi prison guard will probably get her an Oscar nod, which is funny because the gorgeously voluptuous actress once said on Ricky Gervais' brilliant TV show Extras that the only way she'd ever earn a Best Actress nomination was to star in, you guessed it, a Holocaust film.
It's probably heresy to say, but Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List seems to have set the Holocaust up as an occasion to cinematically investigate the tormented lives of German perpetrators rather than the millions of victims who fed their ovens. If you'll recall, two Germans — Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth — were the focus of Spielberg's Oscar-laden triumph with Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz playing second fiddle as the "Every Jew" and Semitic object of desire. And so we enter the season of sympathetic Nazi movies.
While The Reader is not nearly as morally tone-deaf as the recently released The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it does fail to heed its own advice. In the film's final scene, an Auschwitz survivor (played by Lena Olin) beautifully and eloquently argues that, "Nothing came out of the camps. They weren't therapy. If you want catharsis go to the theater." Strange then that screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) go to such great pains to reduce this historically awful event to an act of banal evil. One induced by illiteracy, no less.
As a philosophical allegory, the movie's misguided at best, insulting at worst.
Based on a 100-percent, Oprah-certified novel by Bernard Schlink, the story, set in 1958, concerns Michael Berg (David Kross), a 15-year-old German who falls in love and begins an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a sexy but sullen thirtysomething trolley attendant. Naive and inexperienced, Michael rides a rollercoaster of elation and torment as Hanna repeatedly beds him then emotionally withdraws. Only when the teen begins to read to her does Hanna's icy heart seem to melt. Then abruptly as it began, their relationship ends when Hanna suddenly moves away. Flash forward to Michael's law school years. On a class visit to the courts, he is shocked to discover that his former lover is on trial for war crimes. Caught between love and guilt, he struggles to reconcile his feelings, the results of which we see in modern-day vignettes that feature Ralph Fiennes as the tormented adult-version of Michael.
There is no arguing against the film's pedigree. All the performances are impressive, with young Kross capturing the inexperienced heart of Michael, and Fiennes providing enough subtlety and nuance to compensate for his underwritten scenes. Winslet is, of course, the real marvel, balancing her impeccably Teutonic imperiousness with a haunted, almost-girlish uncertainty. So convincing are their performances that audiences will probably think they've seen more than what was actually on the screen.
Similarly, Daldry composes his tasteful visuals with care, never letting the sex get titillating or tawdry. If anything, there's a poetic sexual ambivalence about Michael's early trysts. Still, there's something unsettlingly pretentious about a relationship that, in the end, idealizes statutory rape. Though the bond between Hanna and Michael can be gripping at times, The Reader reveals very little of their interior states. Instead of examining how carnality, self-deception and guilt have undone their perceptions of love, the film uses faux highbrow shorthand to fudge the internal drama. Michael is certainly conflicted but not particularly complex. Whatever emotional transformations he's struggled with remain hidden behind metaphorical doodles. Sure, the film's measured, serious and handsome in that way that Oscar-bait films often are. But much like The Hours, it's all very superficial. Whether this is due to Hare's overly deliberate script or Daldry's painstaking direction, it's hard to parse.
The real shame is that The Reader actually flirts with some important ideas, namely: the profundity of regret and how we deceive ourselves when we experience opposing emotions. Instead of exploring those ideas, Hare lets the second half of the story become an echo chamber of literary themes. Whatever power might have been generated by the revelation that Hanna used sex to manipulate teenage Michael into being a stand-in version of her concentration camp prisoners is lost amid drama-free court proceedings and generalized brooding. It's this inability to tackle the character's complex emotions and agendas that robs the movie of any meaning and makes Olin's appearance in the final scene so resonant. Because The Reader all but fails in articulating its difficult themes, Hare and Daldry have her spell out what never should've needed to be spoken.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].