‘The Reader’, or Sexual Encounters Of The Third Reich

I suspect there’s something about the way I didn’t like Stephen Daldry’s unforgivably dull Holocaust drama The Reader that only serves to further underline all the problems I’m having with it. You’re just not supposed to badmouth a movie whose subject is as important as this one. What really annoys me, then, is that The Reader seems so aware of this more or less internalized viewer reaction that it completely ignores the need to speak to me as a viewer on something more than a gut level. It’s not that it doesn’t try to engage me, it’s more that it’s done with such heavy-handed symbolism and dubious moral claims that I’m left utterly frustrated and, worse still, bored. Some of its proponents claim that it’s an extraordinarily complex movie, but while I acknowledge that the moral dilemma at its core had the potential to be interesting, every little hint at complexity is eventually abandoned in favor of over-explained dialogues, sentimentalizing musical and visual tableaus and transcendent pleas for emotional investmest based on cliched assumptions about how an audience is supposed to react to a Holocaust movie. This is not to say that it doesn’t try to say something new, only that it seems so sure it will fail to convince us through the power of the story, that it instead regularly falls back on invoking knee-jerk reactions to the broader subject.

One of the central problems I’m having with it however, is more or less a moral one. While I’m initially sympathetic to the power of words, and I  do believe that reading will make you a wiser person, I remain unconvinced by The Reader‘s seemingly implicit claim that Hanna Schmitz’s (Kate Winslet) intellectual curiosity (represented by her love of the books being read to her), will somehow make her seem more human. Yes, I know this argument is never made in exactly that way in the movie (which means it is one of the very few things never explained down to such a completely demystified and airless level of clarity), but the central point that is made of the fact that Hanna asks the women of the concentration camp to read to her, makes it a plausible interpretation. While the mood of the movie is not outright apologetic toward Hanna, it at least prompts me to ask whether loving literature, or being illiterate should purge you of all or most of the personal responsibility that was ruled a basic principle through the Nuremberg trials? I’m simplifying here of course, and The Reader doesn’t necessarily come down on one side of the issue, but no matter how much it may try to hide behind complexity, I still think its politics is somewhat disturbing. The entire premise of this argument then also makes it harder for me to accept the sense of guilt that seemingly mars her young lover Michael Berg (David Kross/Ralph Fiennes) for the rest of his life.

Still, if Stephen Daldry had had a little more faith in his audience, at least the love story aspect of the movie could have worked. But instead of showing what initially had the potential to be an at least mildly interesting story about the often pathetic dynamics of relationships between young and old lovers, he hammers us over the head with not-at-all subtle hints at Hanna’s illiteracy (at times that even seems like a reason for her to wear every emotion on her sleeve), dealt with such a heavy hand that the most convincing sign Michael is actually in love with her is that he’s too into her to see what we viewers understand almost immediately. That said, it’s never a good thing to make your protagonist seem this slow.

Perhaps it’s not fair, but to me it’s a little disappointing that this was the film that should finally earn Kate Winslet her long-awaited and well-deserved Academy Award. Despite several scripted tricks to make Hanna seem more interesting than she really is, I’ve seen Winslet better in other movies, most notably in Revolutionary Road, for which she was scandalously snubbed this year. She fights bravely to tone down the excesses of the script, but she doesn’t always succeed (check out the scene early in the film where she has taken off with young David Kross, and is seemingly overwhelmed by the freedom. She’s all emotion, no nuance. It’s painful to watch, but apart from that, she’s doing good). David Kross certainly has the boyish charms to fill the type, but at the same time his acting in the heavier scenes (and there are lots of them) feels oddly disengaged. His dramatic range isn’t quite big enough for me, even though I know many would disagree. At least this sense of disengagement makes it eminently plausible that he would grow up to be as blandly dull as Ralph Fiennes.

In his review, Franz – who liked the movie a lot more than I did – rightly pointed out that the film suffers from all too many finales. In fact, I suspect my review wouldn’t have been nearly as harsh (but still nowhere near good) if it hadn’t been for one of these last ‘closure’ scenes, featuring Michael Berg and a relative of one of Hanna’s victims. Not wamting to spoil things for people who have yet to see it prevents me from being more specific, but leaving absolutely nothing up to the viewer, Daldry – again – spells out in every detail exactly what we’re seeing, how we should interpret it, and how it’s supposed to make us feel. Despite what you might think, I actually don’t revel in tearing this movie apart, but still I can’t find something to better sum up my feelings about it than to paraphrase The Magnetic Fields: Can you not stand me at all?/(…) I can’t take your perpetual whining.

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7 Responses to ‘The Reader’, or Sexual Encounters Of The Third Reich

  1. poeticgrin says:

    Once again we are in complete agreement. I made the mistake of going to the late movie.

    I fell asleep during the long, long, boring trial. I’ve never fallen asleep in a movie before.

    The first half was better than the second half, but that’s not saying much.

    I, too, had ethical and moral problems with the movie. I just didn’t connect with Kate’s character. And I’m sorry, but the makeup at the end? Didn’t work for me.

    There have been much better Kate Winslet movies.

    Another great post.

  2. Smilie says:

    I haven’t seen this movie and now I’m not sure I want to. Great post!

  3. queerlefty says:

    Smilie, thanks. For me, one of the few reasons I could find to watch it was to see if Kate’s win was deserved. It was, but much like when Denzel Washington won for (the very weak) ‘Training Day’, I can’t help but feel that there was an element of Lifetime Achievement Award at display. She was much stronger in ‘Revolutionary Road’.

    Bryan, yeah, Kate’s been better before. Many may consider both ‘Titanic’ and ‘Finding Neverland’ to be sentimental tear-jerkers, but I definitely not one of them. She was good in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ too.

  4. jaymcfly says:

    You know I really wanted or expected to like the Reader , my friend had the read the book and said great story , I really like Kate Winslet and I had caught David Kross in another film . But It just seemed to drag . I think I was hoping to be pulled in by the story as I was by Revolutionary Road , which I thought her performance was great as was Leo’s.

    By the way your writing is really good , I’ve enjoyed going back and reading your reviews and ”crushes ” posts .

  5. queerlefty says:

    Thanks for your comment, jay, and welcome to all of that.

    I really loved ‘Revolutionary Road’ for how Mendes, Winslet and DiCaprio managed to pretty much every frame seem essential to the bigger picture.

  6. Yes, “Revolutionary Road” is a better Winslet vehicle but “The Readers” is absolutely fab. I was so into it! But that’s as far as we’re going to agree.

    1.) I didn’t think there ever was a LOVE story. A LUST story, yes… but I never saw it as a love story because I thought Winslet’s character was just using Kross’ character as, well, a sexual tool. It was completely one-sided and love was never in the equation.

    2.) But for me, what warrants Winslet’s character’s redemption was that I believed she really was sorry for it all. The courtroom scenes are crucial because she was under the spotlight. As the audience, we were kind of like the cops as questions were asked and we observe her trying to scour answers that a.) sound good in order to protect her secret and b.) while at the same time trying to express her regret and anger toward herself. I don’t think there was anything boring about it.

    “The Reader” deserved to be recognized.

  7. queerlefty says:

    Good points, Franz, although I disagree.

    1) Okay, I might have expressed myself a little imprecise, ‘lust story’ is fine with me, but that applies more to Winslet’s than Kross’s character. I think it’s reasonable to think that love was at least part of the equation for him. Some might be engaged by the slightly pathetic outbursts of ‘first-love’ emotions that characterize the Kross-Winslet relationship, but I found them to be annoying, and they also influenced how I assessed their relationship later in life. Most importamtly however, Winslet’s somewhat clinical approach to Kross in no way makes her character seem more sympathetic or relatable, something she desperately needs, considering what happens later.

    2) While I accept some of your points, I still think the movie strongly undersells the personal responsibility that comes with taking part in sunch horrendous acts. I take your points that some secrets are so painful that people would go to extraordinairy lenghts to keep them, but in my opinion that doesn’t mean the principle of individual responsibility for your own acts. Her illiteracy would of course have been something that could have legitimately softened her sentence, but I don’t accept the movie’s implicit ‘martyrdom’ argument, that she took the punishment because she didn’t want the truth about to come out.

    I might actually watch it again sometime however, to see if I could come closer to your position.

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