8 January 2009 | The_Film_Addict
The Reader is a brilliant, sexually charged, and oddly heartbreaking tale about the complexity of human morality and the lifelong repercussions that result from our actions.
There's an urgency in human nature to understand. When it comes to the Holocaust, history's bleak, unsettling period, it doesn't matter what book you've read, film you've seen or account you've heard; in the end, your response it halted by its incomprehensible conclusion. How could humanity course its way towards such a violent, destructive path? How could people knowingly send men, women, and children to their impending doom? Most puzzling, how could the world allow it? Even though its been 63 years since the blood-drenched annals of World War II, its aftermath today is still bone chilling.
After a six year celluloid dry spell, Stephen Daldry returns to the director's chair in a brilliant, sexually charged, and oddly heartbreaking tale about the complexity of human morality and the lifelong repercussions that result from our actions. Adapted from Bernhard Schlink's best-selling German novel, "The Reader," Daldry's visual translation is a powerful, emotionally absorbing film that is one of the year's best. It's superbly crafted.
With World War II over, Germany, in 1958, is still recovering. Deep within Heidelberg, Germany, Michael (David Kross), a young pubescent teenager haven fallen ill, is comforted by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a hard working woman who is twice his age. Taken by her generosity, Michael revisits Hanna to offer his gratitude. What begins as an awkward reunion escalates into a seductive, forbidden affair that intensifies when Michael begins reading to the distant, empty Hanna, who is deeply awakened by Michael's spoken literature. Too young to understand love's complicated implications, Michael is emotionally devastated when Hanna suddenly disappears. Nearly a decade later, unable to forget his passionate summer while studying law, he attends a Nazi trail, and to his dismay, hears Hanna's distant voice.
"The Reader" is a complex film; maybe a little too complex for some. Though the film pertains to Nazism and the "sins of our fathers," in essence, "The Reader" is a film that reflects the emotions inside all of us. During a lecture, Michael's professor comments, "Societies like to think they operate on morality but they don't." In this cynical age, how far from reality is that statement? During Hanna's trial, she's questioned why she participated in the Nazi party's horrendous war crimes, broken she replies, "It was my job." Oddly enough, that seems to be the justification most people use. Surprisingly, though, "The Reader" isn't about her exposure as a war criminal, but an exposure on an individual who took the wrong path. She's not a bad person; she's simply made wrong choices. However, when it comes to having involvement in the Nazi's liquidation of the Jews, how "wrong" can you get? "You ask us to think like lawyers," cries on student, "what are we trying to do?" A distraught Michael replies, "We are trying to understand!" But, just who exactly is trying to grasp a deeper understanding: the court or Michael? How can Hanna's past be forgiven? Director Stephen Daldry brings the much needed emotional layer that a character such as Hanna Schmitz desperately needs. Although her actions are beyond unforgivable, strangely, we sympathize with her. Maybe it's her other shameful secret. Maybe it's superb character development.
"The Reader" is a film that is driven by it's raw performances. In one of her finest hours, Kate Winslet gives the performance of a lifetime. It's a haunting and heart-breaking. David Kross, who's only 18, is impressive as the teenager with raging hormones; it's such a daring performance. Winselt and Kross bring this picture together. Their performances are jaw-droppingly brilliant. Completing the role of Michael, as the tortured grown man, is Ralph Fiennes, who balances Michael's despair through his melancholic emotion when he encounters a grown Jewish woman, played by Lena Olin, who was also at Hanna's trail. Although her scenes clock in less than 10 minutes, Olin, too, is breathtaking.
When "The Reader's" credits rolled, I sat quietly shaken by what I had witnessed. It's a film that is impossible to forget. When a grown Michael asks Hanna, "Have you spent much time thinking about the past?" Heartbroken, she replies, "It doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what I feel. The dead are still dead." She's right.