The Reader Reviews
Just in time comes the Oscar season. However, ever seeing Benjamin Button nominated, even though it has no business even existing, much less being praised for anything other than its complete rip-off of Forrest Gump, I wasn't that trustworthy of the academy.
That is, until today. I just spent the past two hours thoroughly enjoying The Reader.
Set over a span of time from the early 1940s to the mid 1990's, The Reader is an incredibly unique, sometimes disturbing, yet definitively human film. Broken down, The Reader has two completely separate points wrapped up in the same theme. Humanity.
Kate Winslet better get the Oscar for portraying a woman who, while her character, behavior and core remain the same throughout the movie, the audience is shown how that same behavior can be both graciously charitable, while also being horrifyingly cold-blooded. Her character and portrayal of Hanna Schmitz could be discussed for hours, which shows just how incredible Kate's performance is and how well-written the role is.
From the moment the movie begins, and it seems to begin very quickly. We see how helpful and selfless she can be, nursing a very sick, young Michael Berg, a 15 year old student coming down with Scarlet Fever, whom she had just met as she works as a ticket puncher on a cable car while he takes a ride. 5 minutes later, 3 months have passed and young Michael intends to seek out this Florence Nightingale and show his appreciation. Upon seeking her out, almost immediately, a spark ignites and the next thing the viewer knows, she is naked and they are making love.
While initially this comes across as a bit disturbing, given the taboo subject matter, not to mention legality and lack of morality around the subject, but the affair continues for the next 30 minutes as they progress in a very odd relationship where young Michael eventually uses reading aloud to the older Hanna as a strange bit of foreplay for their future encounters. The relationship, as expected, messes up young Michael's teenage life and all the normal growth that occurs at that age, as evidenced in his inability to connect with a girl in his class named Sophie.
Again, up until this point, the movie is making very little sense and seems to be sticking to almost a blunt shock-factor as its means of entertainment. And failing miserably. The only element I catch that seems to attract me as a viewer is the obvious observation that they have a strange, strong connection that is rooted at something more than day-to-day pleasantries and, in their way, it's developing into a very unique love. A love that strongly fulfills missing pieces of their lives.
Then the focus of the movie begins to be made more clear.
The couple begins to argue. Michael struggles as a teen having very adult feelings in a very adult relationship. Hanna continues to do her job as a ticket puncher very well. So well, in fact, that she obtains a promotion which has the opposite effect than one might think.
After one more night with her lover, Hanna tells Michael to go back to his friends, be a teenager, then off she goes, disappearing without so much as a word to Michael.
Fast forward to 7-8 years later. Michael is now a law student. His ability to forge relationships is almost nonexistent. His sexual encounters mirror the ones he has with Hanna, but then he retires to his own room, choosing not to remain close, in proximity or emotion, to the woman with whom he has just had sex.
Then one day, as part of a law seminar, his class is made to observe a real trial. To his surprise, this one of an older Hanna Schmitz and 5 other women who, as part of their job working for the SS, participated in choosing women and children who would ultimately be exterminated as part of the Holocaust.
Michael quickly enters an internal struggle again to help who is ultimately the love of his life, yet morally do the right thing by not supporting the murder of countless Jews during World War II.
What proceeds for the next hour is one of the most amazing story unravelings and pure brilliant acting that I've seen in a long time.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two distinct points in this movie wrapped up in the same theme. It makes for immensely interesting analysis and discussion.
What becomes clear in this movie is that what originally was 30 minutes of a weird, almost bluntly fast beginning, eventually is the foundation for who Hanna becomes and proves to be throughout her life.
What we find out about Hanna is that she is a very insecure person, driven very strongly by her not wanting to expose her illiteracy. She has developed a very strong work ethic and ability to perfect certain trades. She is driven by duty. And as long as duty is done, she is paid and can live her life. However, this almost robotic personality is completely void of a dimension in our emotions that well-rounded (and well-read) people develop as they grow up. That is why the only time we see Hanna cry or show emotion. The only time we sense she has a heart, is when Michael is reading to her.
This confusing element to her psyche is what makes Kate Winslet's performance so amazing. When she is questioned in the trial why she so callously allowed these women and children to die, she confusingly doesn't see the problem with it. She repeatedly points to the fact that she was doing her duty. In her mind, she had simply sought a job as a guard and it was her duty to guard the prisoners. It was as though she had absolutely NO moral compass at all and that, at no point, was she met with a moral dilemma. Either she fulfill her duty, or she allow these people to die. However, in her troubled mind, she saw much more harm in letting prisoners go since, at the root of her job, was to keep prisoners imprisoned. She was, in fact, a GUARD.
The viewer then begins to understand that this lack of a moral compass, this dimension soulfully lacking in her, is exactly why sleeping with a 15 year old never phased her and why the blunt first 30 minutes of the movie actually made sense. The court is puzzled when, at one point, Hanna says, "I don't understand. Do you mean that maybe I shouldn't have applied for the SS job in the first place?" Even the viewer is struck with a sense of, "HUH??" She just didn't get it.
Obviously she was developmentally stunted, since she was late in life and very illiterate. During the trial, the other women turn on her and gang up to say that Hanna had filled out the report authorizing and validating the murder of countless Jews. Although she protests loudly that they collectively developed the report, when the court requests proof via handwriting samples, instead of publicly admitting to her illiteracy, she takes the fall.
This is the second point in the movie where her misplaced pride drives her to make a decision that she ultimately wishes she hadn't. The first time, she walked away from the only person with whom she shared any kind of love. The second time, she walked away from a potential 4 year sentence and took the fall and received a life sentence. All so that she couldn't expose her shortcomings.
Michael picks up on this during the trial and all of it begins to make sense to him. Why she always wanted him to read to her. Why the liveliest and most exciting portion of their relationship centered around those stories. It was the closest they ever were. However, being a well-rounded person, Michael struggles yet again with exposing her illiteracy to save her a life sentence, or exposing a taboo relationship that ultimately results in helping an admitted murderer. He eventually decides that he must cut her off and walk away.
Fast forward another decade. Michael has married, procreated and divorced. We are shown that he has been unable to emotionally connect with anyone and has distanced himself far from his family. In fact, he never even attends his father's funeral. The only person with whom he ever connected was Hanna. He begins to feel guilty for not assisting her during the trial and proceeds to send Hanna volumes and volumes of cassettes of him reading to her.
Hanna immediately responds to Michael's gifts and, again, we see Hanna's heart. She proceeds to match the words in each book with Michael's voice and, eventually, teaches herself to read. Meanwhile, Hanna's life sentence is coming to an end and she is to be released. Having no family or friends, Hanna informs the prison that Michael needs to be the one who takes her in. Once notified of this, Michael resorts to his early adult self, not wanting to give Hanna his heart or connect again with her emotionally, given that she had performed such horrible crimes.
Michael finally meets with her and agrees to find her work and a place to live. During their first interaction in decades, Michael looks for any shred of remorse from Hanna for what she did during the war. He asks her how she feels about what she had done and, again, she confusingly responds, "It doesn't matter what I think or feel about what I did. The dead are still dead." He then asks her what she has learned. She responds, "Michael, what I learned is how to read."
Saddened by her response, he informs her that he will pick her up the next week and take her wherever she needs to go, but that is it. He can't love her like he wants to. And when she realizes he can't love her, she kills herself before leaving prison.
Her one chance at an emotional connection, at love, at something beyond her duty, is gone. She leaves a short note stating that she wants her money to go to the survivor of the camp where she participated in killing all those Jews. Then she leaves an oddly emotionless statement to Michael asking the prison administration to tell him Hello. Michael falls apart, realizing he failed her again, as well as having failed at the only ounce of true love he ever had with another person.
The Reader superbly displays true humanity. Hanna is capable of showing love and compassion while, at the same time, participating coldly in some of the worst actions a human can participate in. However, the movie almost strangely seeks compassion from the viewer for Hanna since it is clear that Hanna never changes in the movie. Kate perfectly remains consistent in her portrayal of Hanna through compassion and murder. All because at the root of her behavior is her duty. How can the same woman, whose behavior is rooted in the same place, show a compassionate, human side, yet perform unspeakable, inhuman acts??
The movie, at times, wants the viewer to feel sympathy for a character that, inherently, should not be sympathized. Yet, at the end, when Michael takes the money Hanna left to the survivor of the camp, the viewer is shown an unforgiving person who does not have the ability, nor the desire, for absolution of this seemingly evil woman. In the end, she doesn't want the money going to anything Holocaust-related because it would imply forgiveness, but she gives the money back to Michael, who pledges to donate it to a Jewish illiteracy organization. As he leaves, he asks the survivor if he should donate the money in Hanna's name. The survivor responds, "Whatever you see fit."
As a result, the viewer sees that the movie is, in fact, leaving the sympathy of Hanna's character up to the viewer as well. There are certainly elements in the movie where one could feel sorry for Hanna, find hope in her ability to teach herself to read and develop that dimension in herself she didn't have, find love again in Michael and find absolution in her final gift to the survivor. Yet, if the viewer is too disturbed by actions Hanna took, there is perfect reason not to feel sorry for her.
Ironically, while this choice is clearly setup for the viewer to decide, what also is clear is that while Hanna found fault in her participating in the killings of countless Jews, she also consistently wants no sympathy or sadness for her from anyone. She emotes a lot of integrity in that sense. It could be that, again, she doesn't have the dimension of her personality to desire that acceptance or redemption, but it also could be that, as is consistent in her role, Hanna is a very independent and self-made person who realizes she isn't perfect, but has developed a way to live around her imperfections.
I can't say enough how incredible Kate Winslet's performance is. While the movie wasn't perfect, Kate's performance nearly is.
As a side note, this was Sydney Pollack's final production work. And, as a very well-known Jewish man, this topic and objective view of someone who participated in the genocide of his race, shows what a talent Hollywood is going to sorely miss.
The Reader is a phenomenally written and performed film. I highly recommend it. It restored my faith, at least for now, in film.
I think all the nudity and sex (and boy, were there gobs of it) was included in an attempt to distract us viewers from noticing this is a very poor film.
The innocence and the selfless act behind it is the key and the makers were aware of it and narrows it down to it and brings out the best from the book gaining passion, attention and love from the viewers. Stephen Daldry despite of possessing such a beautiful script fails to project it on screen convincingly which makes the audience switch seats on picking a side, for the writing and adaptation is equally powerful on the other side. As these features require, the performance is not compromised on any level by Kate Winslet; she is brilliant, and also Ralph Fiennes from the supporting cast. The Reader has a powerful yet beautiful concept as we all are aware, but also the adaptation and the editing which provides enough space and range to the characters and the actors to flaunt themselves but what's indigestible is the execution and it doesn't pay well in the end.