“The Reader” is a frequently moving film whose thought-provoking subject is severely damaged by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare’s wrongheaded approach to it. It begins as a coming-of-age romance between a teenage boy and an older woman hiding dark secrets and persists in remaining one to the end, common sense be hanged.
The film’s entire premise – that of a teenager just below most nations’ ages of consent having an affair with a woman whom he later discovers to have been a war criminal – is morally ambiguous and thus requires caution on the filmmakers’ part in order to explore it intelligently. To Daldry and Hare’s credit, the effort is most certainly present, particularly in the penultimate scene in which the grown-up protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) meets a survivor’s daughter (Lena Olin), leading to a conversation in which he both struggles to come to terms with his lover’s crimes while also trying to justify his feelings for her. The superb combination of Fiennes’s half-maintained composure with Lena Olin’s calm but firm indignation make it the film’s best scene, and a glimpse of how excellent the film could have been had Daldry’s sentimentality been balanced by a greater sense of moral perspective.
The part of the film dealing with the affair is filmed with such sensuality – expressed particularly well by Roger Deakins’ admirable-as-always lighting and framing – that one is almost tempted to overlook the fact that what is displayed is essentially statutory rape. A fact that Daldry does not appear entirely unaware of, as evidenced by the way he shoots Hanna (Kate Winslet) closing in on 15 year-old Michael (David Kross) with a towel: First from a semi-subjective low-angle shot that suggests Michael’s point of view from the bathtub, then by placing his camera right next to the towel and following Michael rising from the tub to wrap himself in the towel, as the following shot reveals Hanna naked from behind, holding the towel. This succession of images gives the viewer an impression of a hunter successfully ensnaring her prey. The following close shots of Michael’s nervous reactions to her kissing his back reinforce that idea, even as the rest of the film plays the romance angle quite straight. Wherein lies the major problem in the later revelation of Hanna’s past.
By the time he discovers the truth, Michael is a law student studying German guilt during World War II. He is taken on a trip to a trial of SS guards by his Holocaust-surviving professor (Bruno Ganz, surely a casting decision based on his daring portrayal of Adolf Hitler in “Downfall”), who spends the film serving as the voice of German conscience rather than a character in his own right. He discovers Hanna was one of those guards. As the judge repeatedly asks her why she knowingly sent so many Jews to die, she can only reply “Well, what would you have done?” It’s neither a display of defiance nor a rhetorical question. She is honestly confused; the idea of defying orders, of NOT letting Jews die, seems beyond her grasp. This would imply that Hanna may be a sociopath, yet Kate Winslet’s outstanding multilayered performance suggests something more complicated. Her past displays of bottled-up shame and mood swings point towards possible remorse, or at least an emotionally violent reaction to being reminded of the past. Add this to her quasi-childlike incomprehensive attitude at the trial, and Hanna looks less like an evil sociopath and more like someone so morally blinded that she may as well be have been living on another plane of existence altogether, until she was violently brought back to Earth. She is in fact so outside of the common moral sphere that she is more ashamed of her illiteracy – a twist most viewers will have easily guessed by now – than of causing so many innocent people to die.
Michael’s horrified realization that the woman he loved – or at least, in his teenage mind, thought he loved – was not only actively complicit in one of the worst crimes in human history but didn’t have any qualms about it, had the potential for great drama. And at first, it appears to be fulfilling that potential: After some hesitation, Michael decides to deliberately withhold knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy so that she may be condemned to a full life sentence. Years pass, Michael gets married, has a daughter, then divorces, but Hanna remains on his mind. He is still torn between love, disgust and incomprehension. Eventually, he sends her audio tapes of himself reading books he used to read to her, as both a way to communicate his feelings to her and supposedly give her a chance at redemption by teaching herself to read. An act of mutual redemption for the pain each has given to the other.
There lies another problem with the story that isn’t truly addressed until the penultimate scene: Among the 11 million people – Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others – killed during the Holocaust, Hanna has been directly responsible for over 300. And Michael is making this all about him! As if the affront to his feelings was somehow more important than the affront to the victims and their families. The problem isn’t Michael’s self-centeredness, it’s the way the film validates and endorses it by portraying Hanna’s quest to learn how to read and write as some form of redemption, as if being able to read would somehow have made all the difference back then.
Stephen Daldry has always been a somewhat heavy-handed director, but he has distinctly improved since “Billy Elliot”. His shots are more varied and more imaginatively-constructed, and he directs his actors in a way that allows them to interact more naturally within the frame, rather than appear prisoners of the scene’s desired mood as most did in “The Hours”. However, some of his on-the-nose tendencies still persist: The revelation of Hanna’s illiteracy is punctuated by flashbacks to every hint that led to it; Michael’s fateful decision to not visit Hanna in prison loses its efficiency by the show of him turning around and walking back, rather than let his pause and subsequent absence from the line of visitors speak for themselves. While the actors – especially Kate Winslet – perform admirably, the use of German-accented English rather than subtitled German sometimes results in such awkward, unnatural sights as a crowd of spectators shouting “Nazi whore!” at Hanna in German accents, further exposing the film’s artifice.
“The Reader” chooses to emphasize romance and sensuality over its examination of guilt, forgiveness and responsibility. In doing so, it not only wastes its opportunity as a character study, it grossly simplifies one of the worst atrocities ever committed by man.