The Reader, Dir. Stephen Daldry (2008)

From left: Kate Winslet as Hanna, David Kross as Michael Photo: Guardian

From left: Kate Winslet as Hanna, David Kross as Michael Photo: Guardian

 This is a rather troubled film that strives rather too conciously to be a complex story of post-war German guilt, and the question of whether we can, and should, understand someone who has taken part in something utterly horrific- in this case Hanna’s (Kate Winslet) killing of Jews as a Nazi camp guard.

Having not read the book by Bernhard Schlink I cannot tell how successfully the film has synthesised this essential premise, but I can only assume the novel is just as troubling and was indeed, seen as fairly controversial. For some taking the issue of the holocaust and turning it into a love-affair between a 15 year-old German boy Michael (an excellent David Kross ) and Hanna seems indecent and trivialises the issue. I can see this up to a point but I would not crudely dismiss the film as just about an ex-Nazi who shags a boy a lot.

This part of the film detailing the affair was for me the best part, it captured the naive passion in which a teenager would embark on an affair with an older woman who he is in awe of. Though the fact that Hanna calls him ‘kid’ throughout did get grating, coming across as motherly, impersonal and patronising all at the same time, as if Hanna revels in her amorality.

You get the sense too that Hanna loves him but not as much as Michael loves her, the very loneliness of her life lived in a drab, delalpidated and tiny flat (conveyed well by Daldry) shows that she is probably desperate for any affection she can get. This is confirmed when Hanna as a prisoner recieves no visitors, she thus recieves Michael’s audio tapes, reading books he read to her during their affair, with pathetic eagerness.

Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe for this role and she does do quite a good job in conveying Hanna’s strong sense of duty in her role as camp guard and her burning shame in her illiteracy; which drives her to say she wrote the damning report on the Jews she left in a burning building and thus leads to her unfair life imprisonment. (Whether someone would ever be that proud to take life imprisonment over admitting you couldn’t read is another question).

She also conveys something of Hanna’s complexity (a probable improvement on the book which has her as much more detached), her belief that she had no other choice but to be a camp guard (In a keypoint in the film she asks the judge: “What would’ve you done?”) and also her ambigous sense of morality. Thus while she refuses to admit to Michael that she’s not learnt anything but “how to read” while in prison, Winslet leaves open the possibility that this stubbornesss is merely a front, a means of surviving with the enormity of what she’s done.

Mention also has to be made of David Kross, a star- in- the -making, who lends depth and understanding to his role conveying brilliantly the awe that this naive young boy has for this mysterious older woman. And doing a much better job in engaging the audience’s sympathy than (the usuallygood) the po-faced Ralph Fiennes does with the older Michael.

And here lies the main flaw of the film, the characterisation of Michael. I just could not understand how someone could become so emotionally distant to everyone around him, as a result of a summer affair that happened when he was 15. Call me cynical.

There were also some very contrived plot developments, for instance Hanna decides to bequeath her money to the daughter (a dignified Lena Olin) of the Jewish woman she helped to kill in the burning build. A move that seems uncharacteristic of Hanna and so something put in to try and make Hanna more sympathetic.

Later when Michael trys to give her the money she naturally declines it and so also declines to give Michael the sense of absolution he so pathetically craves. But she does take the tin the money was contained in, as it reminds her of one she lost in the camp. And that’s not the worst of it to add insult to injury, she then places it proudly next to a photograph of her family. I mean what! 

This scene also comes after an excruciating moment when Michael starts to randomly read ‘The Girl and Her Little Dog’ taped on Hanna’s cell wall after she commits suicide. I’m not sure but I think Daldry intended this scene to be moving instead of ridiculous.

So though the film does raise interesting questions on the nature of responsibility, guilt and what drives people to atrocious deeds, the flaws in plotting and characterisation cannot be overcome.

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