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Reader, The (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2009
ImageI remember listening to an audio commentary by German director Werner Herzog. In it, he was discussing how his generation had an acute crisis: How does one deal with the fact their parents were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers? Despite all I had learned as a child about the Holocaust, this particular aspect of World War II had never occurred to me. Immediately, I became fascinated. After all, it was easy to empathize with the victims of the Nazi regime, people rounded up and killed for nothing more than their beliefs, or skin color, or sexual orientation. But what of the Germans who came after? How do they deal with a national legacy that institutionalized bigotry and murder?

Such are the questions brought to bear by The Reader, the newest film by Stephen Daldry (The Hours). The film focuses on Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a lawyer living in Berlin. His relationships with women are cold and informal. He has separated from his wife and doesn’t speak much to his daughter. One day, the morning after a tryst, the woman who spent the night comments on his coldness. He then begins to reminisce to a time when he was just a teenager. Going home from school, he found himself incredibly ill. A tram operator, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), helps him out and gets him home. Once he’s better, his mother urges him to go thank Hanna. He goes to do so, but standing outside her apartment, he sees her changing clothes, and when she notices him, he runs off.

Later, he returns, and she, realizing what he wants, decides to begin a love affair with him. When she discovers he’s skipping school to be with her, she demands he return, and has him read her the books he’s learning. Eventually, as time goes on, the relationship wears thin, and Hanna disappears. Years later, as a law student, Michael discovers Hanna again, simultaneously uncovering two terrible secrets that she tried to hide from him and the world.

The Reader is more fascinating in concept than in execution. The beginning portion, the affair between Hannah and Michael, is not especially interesting or exciting. In fact, aside from Kate Winslet appearing nude in virtually every scene, there’s nothing of note in them at all. Once Michael enters law school, things start moving, but by then the movie not only has to be good, it has to shake off the malaise that plagued it up to that point. The film never picks up enough steam to overcome its own construction. It doesn’t help that Daldry shoots everything like it were happening underwater, moving so slowly that you almost expecting to see a pair of turtles race by the actors.

Not everything is bad, however. Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes both turn in strong, sensitive performances. The vastly underused Bruno Ganz appears in an important role as Michael’s law school professor. Lena Olin shows up as a Holocaust survivor, although I’ve never been particularly impressed with her acting abilities, and this performance did little to change my mind. The best scenes in the film are undoubtedly the trial sequences, where Winslet plays Hanna as confused but sincere. These are the scenes where I felt the most for the characters, and also the scenes that most directly connect with that long-standing interest I have with the emotional and cultural fallout of the Holocaust on Germany’s next generation.

Ultimately, there’s not enough substance in The Reader. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of emotional scenes, with people shouting at each in German accents that vary in thickness. But there’s not enough that really grabs the audience and makes them feel or even think most of the time. It’s a movie that can be watched passively, which is never a good thing when you’re trying to engage the audience on any level, let alone multiple levels.

I don’t understand how this movie got nominated for the best picture and best director Oscars. The only reason I could think of was because two of the film’s producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, passed away recently. But that’s no reason to give the movie Oscars, or even nominate it for them. Because this average film got nominated, one of a bevy of excellent films (The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, The Wrestler, and Wall-E all jump to mind) didn’t. I shouldn’t care this much about the Oscars, which is really just a big pat on the back from Hollywood to Hollywood (as a friend of mine put it, it’s like finding out what the favorite iPod is among the group who designed iPods), but to see a movie this thoroughly uninteresting get nominated over far more deserving films just gets my goat.

2 out of 5 Stars

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