The Reader (2008) dir. Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
“The Reader” reeks of Oscar-bait – a shamefully contrived series of manufactured dramatic scenes. Every ragged emotion is stimulated using explicit sex, the holocaust, suicide to fool us into thinking there’s some profound lessons about life.
It’s 1950’s West Germany, teenaged Michael Berg (David Kross) is sick with Scarlett fever and he’s taken in with kindness by a transit clerk named Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet). The boy comes back to thank the woman, and after a couple of longing glances and some arbitrary scenes of clothes removal the two start a torrid affair. Despite their age Hannah educates David into the joys of sex. As they get to know each other they start a ritual of David reading to Hannah before coitus. Whether it’s Homer, or Archie comics Hannah loves books as much as sex with young men.
As suddenly as their romance began it ends when Hannah disappears from David’s life. David finds her again years later when he’s in law school. It’s an inauspicious occasion though as Hannah is on trial for Nazi crimes (who knew). Naturally David is distraught, but he never makes contact with her, instead watches the proceedings from afar. When David grows up to be Ralph Fiennes, he starts up an even more peculiar relationship with Hannah when she’s in prison – sending audio tapes of him reading books to her (like the good old days), an act which eventually allows Hannah to atone for her sins.
This movie keeps going and going and going. The first act is a tender coming of age romance in the tradition of sexual exploration films like “The Graduate” or “Last Tango in Paris”. The bombshell of the Holocaust, which is dropped on us, is an unnecessary and contrived manipulation of character. There are no hints of Hannah’s nefarious past, only hints that she can’t read. Introducing the Holocaust requires some responsibility to do it right. Instead it feels like a shameless form of exploitation. Hannah could have been a reformed murderer and the dynamic of character would have been the same.
So when the film changes gears Daldry discards the themes of youth coming of age and abandonment for the moral history lesson of the Holocaust. For the entire second act David is inactive, only reactive to the revelations. When Ralph Fiennes takes over the character the film continues on and on over the decades to encompass the rest of Hannah’s life into old age. More ridiculous contrivances are dropped on us including a revelation about Hannah’s deep secret (other than the Nazi secret), a suicide attempt and the significance of an old yellow tea box.
Lena Olin appears in a scene at the end, the length of which muddies the theme and point of the film even more. By the end it’s a hodgepodge of Oscar scenes, hot steamy sex, unnecessary warts and all nude scenes, dramatic courtroom twists, aging make-up, painful repression of memories, and long lost reunifications. At the very least everyone speaks with a good German accent which can’t be said of a couple other non-German made German films this year (“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and “Valkyrie”).