[Warning: this review contains spoilers galore.]
I saw Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed film “The Reader” yesterday afternoon and was very moved by it. For my money, the movie was about the banality of evil, a la Hannah Arendt. Kate Winslet plays a former SS guard named Hanna who seduces 15-year old Michael Berg (played by David Kross and then Ralph Fiennes). Hanna hungers after two things: sex and literature. She has young Michael read to her, a task which he eagerly takes up as a prelude or postlude to love-making — and then later in the film under far more tragic circumstances.
I am surprised that no film reviews I could find made mention of the use of water as a major symbol in the film. Hanna seems to be almost as fond of bathing as she is of sex, and water with its purifying, baptismal resonances is returned to again and again throughout the narrative.
Make what you will of the film’s themes of guilt and secrets.
“The Reader” has been accused of being well-lit, star-vehicle Oscar bait that trivializes the evils of the Holocaust, but I didn’t find it to be so. It is a beautiful film about a vampiric relationship within the context of a national and individual moral abyss. Neither did I agree with the reviewer who deemed Winslet’s character “too stupid to defend herself” at a trial at which she is accused of authoring the report that essentially authorized the burning alive of 300 female Jewish prisoners in a locked church. I thought her character was not stupid, but banal. She lacked conscience, creativity and courage. She followed orders. “What would you have done?” she asks the judge, and when she does you can feel the jaws drop open in the theatre. I know that my own face pulled back into a grimace of disbelieving horror. What a thing to say, and yet so perfect for such a dead, obedient soul. It is a truly horrific moment and all the more memorable for its lack of histrionics.
Screenwriter David Hare (adapting the novel by Bernhard Schlink) gives this wonderful line (at a different point in the story) to one of the idealistic young law students who cannot morally stomach what the elders of his country did during World War II. “Everybody knew!” he cries. “The question isn’t ‘Did you know’ but ‘Why, when you knew what was happening, didn’t you kill yourself?'”
Bruno Ganz is wonderful as a law professor and young actor David Kross does an extraordinary job (I thought) of making us believe that a fresh young man could fall in love with such a shut-down, morose cypher as Winslet’s Hanna.
As for Winslet’s Oscar-winning performance, I applaud her for making Hanna absolutely ordinary rather than a more complex and charismatic villainess. Hanna’s decision to keep her illiteracy a secret rather than confess it and save herself from a life sentence in prison isn’t really interesting — it’s both pathetic and morally reprehensible, as her keeping her secret results in lighter sentences for her “more” guilty comrades. But what the hell, all the female SS officers on trial are fiends — I found that I didn’t care any more about the flummoxed Hanna’s fate than that of her more sinister co-workers. Nor did I respond with any real feeling to her suicide on the eve of her release from prison. I hope that I was not meant to. I sympathized only with Ralph Fiennes’ character — a man eternally haunted by his entanglement with this Nazi sphinx.
Did you see it? What did you think? I am still trying to figure out what the testimony about Hanna’s favoring of weaker young women (who read to her before they were dispatched to their deaths) was all about — and was the Lena Olin survivor character one of the girls who read to her? Was that supposed to be a moment, when Ralph Fiennes reveals that he, too, had been exploited by Hanna to read to, and service, her? Was that a flash of sympathy between Lena’s and Ralph’s characters? If so, it kind of went over my head.
The scenes of the camps were devastating. I didn’t find them to be less so because of their cinematographical beauty.