Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
The Reader is a romantic period drama film released in 2008 and is an adaptation of the 1995 book of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. Set in post-war Germany, the film examines the impact of the Second World War via the relationship between a young man training to become a lawyer and an enigmatic older woman who has an enormous effect on his life. The film stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross and was directed by Stephen Daldry. The film was the final production produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who both died before the release of the movie. Like the book, the film received a mixed response from critics although Winslet's performance was praised. The film went on to win a number of awards including Winslet's long overdue Academy Award for Best Actress and ultimately earned a respectable $108 million worldwide.
What's it about?
In 1995, middle-aged lawyer Michael Berg is in his Berlin apartment and reminisces about his early life in post-war Germany. In 1958, he was a fifteen year boy suffering from the symptoms of scarlet fever. After wandering through the streets feeling sick, he is taken in by Hanna Schmitz who looks after him and helps him back home. After he has recovered, Michael returns to Hanna's apartment to say thanks but before he knows what's happening, the pair of them start a passionate relationship. As Michael spends more time with Hanna and reading to her after they have sex, he is distraught when she suddenly disappears without saying anything.
In 1966, Michael is studying to become a lawyer at Heidelberg University Law School and as part of his course, he attends a trial of several suspected former SS guards accused of genocide. To his horror, Hanna appears as the chief suspect and is implicated in the deaths of some 300 Jewish women and children who were locked inside a burning church. After Hanna is accused of writing a report about the incident, Michael quickly realises that Hanna cannot possibly be guilty as she is hiding a secret that could prove her innocence. Instead, Hanna confesses to the crime and Michael is torn between his feelings for her and his desire to see justice done.
What's to like?
There are two ways of looking at The Reader but both of them have their issues. I prefer to look at the film as a straight-forward romantic drama because the film's first act is arguably the best. Set amid the backdrop of a city and society still coming to terms with the horrors of their recent past, their unconventional relationship feels like a breath of humanity in the ruins. Winslet and Kross are superb, generating real chemistry despite the age difference and provide the film with a remarkably feel-good centre - which sadly gets torn apart as the film progresses. Some people criticised the film for the uncomfortable nature of their sexual relationship but plenty of other films depict older men bedding much younger women without anything being said.
The other way of looking at the film is as an examination of German society in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not knowing much about this personally, the message was lost on me but it poses some interesting questions. The first time I saw this film with my wife, it caused some discussion between the two of us over character motivations and how Hanna's secret could possibly be worse than complicity in a massacre. But the film isn't really about the Holocaust although it does take the time to illustrate just how harrowing those times were. There's a scene where a character walks past shoes gathered from those who were sent to the camps and the camera pulls back, revealing endless shelves all stacked with similar shoes. But the film manages to avoid being overly preachy and instead, discusses the moral implication of those involved in such heinous action. How can you reconcile such barbarity when ordinary people like your neighbour or lover is responsible?
- Winslet originally turned down the role due to scheduling conflicts so Nicole Kidman stepped up to replace her. However, filming was delayed while Kidman finished filming Australia. By the time filming was due to start, Kidman was pregnant but Winslet was now available for the part so everything worked out fine in the end.
- Winslet deliberately snubbed producer Harvey Weinstein in her Oscar acceptance speech. She profoundly disagreed with his 'business behaviour' over the years even though she had not been propositioned personally by the mogul.
- When author Schlink sold the rights to the book, he insisted that the dialogue be filmed in English and not German. Kross learnt English specifically for the film and the rest of the cast imitated his accent for the film. Kross' mother was reluctant to let him shoot the film as it meant four months out of school - she insisted that he could only make the movie if he passed his exams.
What's not to like?
For all the film's technical competence and artistic flair, there is something off-putting about The Reader and it's not just the suggestion that a personal secret can somehow be more shameful than mass murder. Once the film moves away from the romantic side of things and into the nitty-gritty of the trial, the film's impetus shifts dramatically and the pacing and atmosphere are suddenly replaced by lots of soul searching and long legal argument. The central premise of the story felt a bit too unnatural to be convincing (how did Hanna ever manage to keep her secret hidden for so long without people noticing?) and all-in-all, it had the feel of an airport romance novel. It's well intended, certainly, but it comes across as a dark chick-lit adaptation with lots of internal monologues we aren't privy to. I wanted more but the film wasn't going to give it to me.
The worst thing about the film, though, is it's blatant appeal to Oscar voters. Most viewers can pick up when a film is aiming more for critical success than box office appeal and The Reader is certainly guilty of that. But by narrowing its target audience down to those who vote on such things, the film has an air of exclusivity to it that doesn't resonate with ordinary viewers. Yes, Winslet and Kross (who I felt was unfairly snubbed given his performance) are excellent in their roles and while he hasn't as much to do, Fiennes is solid as the older Michael looking back with such regret and conflicting feeling. Yes, it's very well made and yes, it captures the mood of a nation struggling to understand its recent past. But is the film entertaining? Not really - it's a very worthy film but it's hard to know who to recommend to.
Should I watch it?
Complex and full of uncomfortable questions, The Reader is a challenging watch that offers plenty of food for thought. But it doesn't answer all of its own questions and frankly, is carried by the superb performance of Winslet. Like many Oscar-bait pictures, I'm glad I've seen it but I can't honestly say that I'm in a hurry to do so again. For a film with so much talent invested in it, it's a shame it doesn't try to engage everyday viewers a bit more who will probably be expected more sex, romance and optimism instead of a grim exploration of a deplorable episode of human history.
Great For: post-war German society, Winslet's awards cabinet, internet perverts
Not So Great For: Jewish viewers, traditional romance film fans, fans of the book as the film dispenses with much of the monologing in the novel
What else should I watch?
Winslet is no stranger to these kind of films which require an actress able to pull off high levels of drama coupled with gratuitous nudity - see the likes of Little Children, the recent Ammonite or Holy Smoke for further examples. Obviously most famous for her performance of Rose in Titanic, Winslet as an actress has managed to escape James Cameron's blockbusting megahit and established herself as one of the greatest stars of her generation. For me, her best performance (and what she should have won her Oscar for) was in Michel Gondry's trippy romance Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind alongside Jim Carrey as two lovers who undergo a medical procedure to remove the memories of each other once the relationship turned sour. Kross, meanwhile, continues to ply his trade in both German and English-language productions although I'm waiting for him to deliver a performance of equal stature to his role here. He recently popped up in a small but crucial role in The King's Man, coincidentally also starring Fiennes.
The spectre of the Holocaust continues to cast a long shadow over the world and films tend to keep a distance from something that still causes a great deal of pain to many people. Some, like The Reader, adopt an approach that focuses on the aftermath whether it's the trial of those who committed such atrocities (Judgment At Nuremberg), those who survived (Sophie's Choice) or the attempts by both to move on, however painful the experience (The Night Porter). Probably the most well known film about the Holocaust is the haunting Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's monochrome look at the efforts of industrialist Oskar Schindler to save the lives of hundreds of Jews who would otherwise be sent to the Nazi death camps. Universally praised by critics and showered with awards, the film is one of the toughest I've ever watched and while still a bit Oscar-friendly, it's a powerful and emotional story that deserved exposure and unlike The Reader, is based on a true story.
older Michael Berg
younger Michael Berg
Alexandra Maria Lara
Release Date (UK)
2nd January, 2009
Best Actress (Winslet)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay
© 2022 Benjamin Cox