The Reader

the-readerAdapted from Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller and starring Kate Winslet as a former SS officer and David Kross as her schoolboy lover, The Reader throws up difficult questions about the nature of culpability in the Holocaust.

Ralph Feinnes plays Michael Burg, an uptight German lawyer who is first seen in his sleek, minimalist apartment preparing an orderly breakfast for his bedfellow before bidding her an awkward goodbye – director Stephen Daldry does not shy away from stereotypes of standoffish Germans. The film then flashes back to the late 50s to when Michael (now played by Kross) was 15.Not yet out of school, he begins an illicit and passionate affair with a 34-year-old tram-conductor named Hanna (Kate Winslet), who first encountered him on the street when he was suffering from a painful bout of scarlet fever. She enjoys listening to him read to her, and lust soon blossoms into love, until one day Hanna disappears without trace.

Several years later, when Michael is a law student at Heidelberg University, he comes across Hanna in a different context altogether: she is one of six middle-aged women being tried for war crimes after a Jewish survivor publishes a book about the concentration camp where she worked as a guard. As Michael watches from the viewers’ gallery, he twigs that Hanna may be hiding some vital information that could help her case.

The film focuses heavily on the conflict in Michael’s mind between his feelings of love and loyalty to Hanna, and his sense of utter horror as the full extent of her past crimes unfurls in court. Yet it is hard to identify with his dilemma. Hanna is a difficult character to read, fluctuating between anger and stubborn passivity, but at no point does Winslet make her likeable. Her occasional demonstrations of compassion are few and far between, and for the duration of the affair she has the upper hand, exploiting Michael’s naiveté and good will.

Hanna is illiterate – a fact she tries to hide, and of which she is deeply ashamed. Indeed her testimony implies that her inability to read is far more disgraceful than her standing idly by as 300 Jews burned to death behind the locked doors of a church that she was guarding. The golden lighting of the courtroom, and Hanna’s tears of frustration are designed to provoke the audience’s sympathy, and tellingly there is no flashback to the burning church – the story comes to light only in the court proceedings. Had Daldry included such a scene, any sympathy with the defendant would have been impossible.

Like Daldry’s previous films Billy Elliot and The Hours, The Reader is engineered to score highly at award ceremonies, with excellent performances from high profile British and German actors, and a weighty theme that cannot be brushed aside. However, the film, whilst pretending to explore the thorny issue of German culpability, succeeds only in diminishing the truly horrific events of the holocaust by highlighting Hanna’s vulnerability, and making her a scapegoat for the crimes of several other unsavoury characters.

As mentioned, many of the cast are German nationals, with a few Brits thrown in for good measure. To get over the obvious problem of which accent to choose, Winslet and Feinnes don slight German accents to match those of their German colleagues. This contrivance takes some getting used to, and means that the screenplay doesn’t feel as immediate or realistic as that of The Lives of Others or Downfall.

Kross gives a fantastic performance as the young Michael, and his initial scenes with Winslet are full of youthful excitement and sexual tension. However, when Fiennes steps in to play the older Michael, his reticence and emotional coolness keeps the audience at a distance, engaging the head but not the heart. This is not helped by the film’s unconvincing attempt to age Winslet into her seventies instead of using an older actor.

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