by Mel Valentin
Directed by Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") and adapted by David Hare ("The Hours"), "The Reader" is the big-screen adaptation of the bestselling 1995 German-language novel by Bernhard Schlink. A period drama that circles back to World War II, the Holocaust, and its aftermath, "The Reader" centers on an ex-Nazi concentration camp guard who, at least here, gets the martyr-to-national-guilt treatment, and another character who pines for a long-ago, idyllic summer he spent with the older woman he barely knew. It also holds back on delivering the melodramatic goods while also failing to deliver a meaningfully emotional impact. Full of restrained, perfectly composed compositions, furrowed brows, and frequent, sometimes gratuitous, nudity, "The Reader" aspires to be considered high art, but instead falls to the level of safe, middlebrow entertainment (in other words, perfect Oscar bait material).The Reader opens in 1995 as Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a successful German attorney leading a seemingly empty, commitment-free life, wistfully reminisces about his first romantic relationship at fifteen with a woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in 1958. Close to twenty years Michael’s (David Kross) senior, the lonely, frustrated Hanna quickly takes Michael as a lover. Between bouts of heated lovemaking with Hanna as the experienced teacher and Michael the eager student, Michael reads to Hanna from the classics, everything from Goethe to Homer to D.H. Lawrence and Chekhov. As Hanna’s secrecy about her past and the romantic interest of a girl his own age leave Michael unclear about his future with Hanna, their romantic relationship begins to sour. Before Michael can lose interest in Hanna, however, she disappears without a word of explanation.
"See it, if you see it all, for Kate Winslet's riveting performance."
Eight years later, Michael is a law student studying ethics, morality, and the law. As part of the course, Michael and the other students sit in on a war crimes trial involving six female guards who served together at Auschwitz. Michael identifies Hanna among the defendants, but refuses to reveal himself to her. He chooses observation over participation. As the trial unfolds, Michael listens to damning testimony from two survivors, as well as potentially self-incriminating testimony from Hanna herself. He soon realizes, however, that he holds key information that might save Hanna from life in prison. Paralyzed with uncertainty, he searches for an answer, bringing his questions to his professor (Bruno Ganz).
The Reader then jumps forward another ten years to the mid-1970s, following the still grieving Michael, now a practicing attorney, and Hannah (whose ultimate fate is best left for viewers to discover on their own), living separately but still connected by their feelings for each other, then jumping again another decade to 1988 and the resolution of Michael and Hanna’s relationship, before finally settling in 1995, as a fifty-two year old Michael attempts a reconciliation with his daughter by relating the experiences of that long-ago summer and how he was irrevocably changed by those experiences. With each jump forward in time, however, The Reader loses dramatic and emotional momentum, eventually settling into a listless, meandering set of loosely connected scenes.
Thematically, The Reader explores post-war Germany’s struggles with its Nazi past, both among the Nazis who escaped punishment for wartime crimes and the deep-seated national guilt that confronted subsequent generations. The twenty-year gap between Michael and Hanna neatly covers the intergenerational issues faced by post-war Germans, but the focus on one character, Michael, incapable of accepting Hanna’s seeming betrayal or her basic unknowability, and therefore, unchangeable over a two-hour running time, turns The Reader into a stagnant, self-indulgent exercise. Then too is the overly careful, restrained sidestep of anything related to the Holocaust or, of course, the questionably sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi concentration camp guard.Regardless of "The Reader’s" strong or weak points, you know it’s Oscar season when Kate Winslet deglamorizes herself for a role as an ex-Nazi guard aging ungracefully over a forty-year period, as she does here. Winslet gives a carefully calibrated, restrained performance in harmony with Hanna’s restrained, repressed nature. Ralph Fiennes doesn’t quite match Winslet’s performance for quiet intensity, but he’s hampered by having to share screen time with David Kross, who plays Michael as a young man, and the awkward transition from Kross in his mid-twenties during the 1960s to Fiennes in his mid-thirties in the 1970s. Fiennes is both too old in the 1970s-set scenes and too young for the scenes set two decades later. Winslet, of course, doesn’t have to split her screen time or her character with another actress.
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originally posted: 12/12/08 03:25:39