When a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Venice told me that The Reader was the best movie he had ever seen, and a research psychologist in Colorado emailed me the same thing the next day, I raced to the theatre.
The Reader, nominated for five Academy Awards, is about secrets, obsession, collective and individual guilt, the indelibility of first love affairs, legality, morality, compassion, forgiveness, and the complexity of behavior. It asks many questions, leaving most of them unanswered, a rarity in mass entertainment. It's beautifully directed and shot with high level writing and acting, interesting editing, artistic lighting -- always a plus when there are lots of sex scenes -- and the music almost always adds layers rather than intrudes. For my money, it's a nearly flawlessly crafted movie.
I was riveted for the first hour or so. And then I started feeling uncomfortable, disturbed, and ultimately deeply troubled: What's going on here? When did this bleak complex tale turn so sentimental, so romantic?
The movie is based on the more complicated novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. Readers of the novel armed with ambiguities omitted from the movie may well argue with my opinions, but it wouldn't be a fair fight. Movies demand much more ruthless selection of details than novels, and I'm writing about the details chosen that shape and drive this movie.
Briefly, The Reader is about a 15-year-old boy seduced by a 36 year old woman -- the morality of the age difference a whole other issue I'm not getting into here. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) teaches Michael Berg (David Kross) how to sexually please a woman, with the unique twist of having him read the classics aloud to her before and after sex. Alternately warm and capriciously cruel, Hanna irreparably damages Michael, enthralling him not just during their brief affair, but for the rest of his life. Always mysterious, she vanishes suddenly, and Michael doesn't encounter her again until he's 23, a law student attending a trial in the 60s. To his shock, confusion, anger, Hanna is one of the defendants on trial for her crimes as a SS guard. Can you love a monster is only one of the many questions raised by this movie.
The movie opens in 1995, 37 years after the adolescent affair, 7 years after the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) has buried Hanna. In his 50's, he's still a basket; still withholding -- "Has any woman ever stayed long enough to find out what goes on in your head," one lover asks--still so obsessed by his memories he has to be reminded of his appointment with his daughter whom he hasn't seen for a year. We flash back and forth to the 1958 affair, Hanna's trial in 1966, her time in prison, and the present.
At Hanna's trial, Michael suddenly realizes that she is lying -- taking the rap for five other SS guards -- so as not to reveal a secret so shameful to her it has ruled every choice of her life. Don't read on if you haven't seen the movie.
Her secret: she's illiterate.
In anguish and conflict, Michael goes to his professor (Bruno Ganz), who tells him, "It doesn't matter what you feel or think. It matters what you do. If you don't learn anything from what happened to us (the previous generation) then what the Hell is the point of anything?" But without telling the judge or trying to convince Hanna otherwise, the future lawyer suppresses evidence, keeps Hanna's secret, and justice is weirdly thwarted: the five other guards get light sentences, and she gets 20 years.
A decade later, still barely able to give anybody a crumb in his life, his marriage in tatters, his paternal duties slighted, absent even from his father's funeral, Michael spends years taping books for Hannah to read in prison -- a continuation of their love affair, since reading was always their foreplay. That somebody thinks reading is part of loving sounds like a writer's fantasy but, in this context in this movie, I found it obscene. I know first affairs are powerful, but I kept coming back to the fact that Michael wasn't a boy; he was now a grown man in his thirties, a lawyer schooled in making judgments, a man aware that his whole life was screwed up and that he was screwing up other people's lives. Yet, instead of making some moral judgment in maturity, he was still willfully twisting in conflict because of an adolescent love affair. Nobody expects or wants their movie characters to be uncomplicated and unflawed, but by this point, rather than gaining in sympathy or understanding, I was only squirming at pathology.
And then a joyous day comes when Hanna in prison teaches herself to read and write.
Hanna's learning to read after all those stunted years of her life was presented as a triumph of the highest order. I'm all for literacy, but come on: Hanna felt more shame over being illiterate than she felt shame over being an SS guard. Her illiteracy, which the movie sentimentalized, was paltry in life's bad breaks compared to the tragedy of the camps, and could never fully explain or partially excuse her heinous behavior. She had the young and the weak read to her before sending them to the gas chambers. She was party to killing 300 women -- and an unknown number before that at Auschwitz -- and could not or would not acknowledge or apologize. She said to Michael early on -- and remember, this is years after her SS guard stint -- "Nobody has to apologize to anybody for anything." Some viewers consider her suicide an apology or an acknowledgment, but I think she killed herself because Michael made it clear to her that he was no longer going to be her reader, i.e., her lover. She was a narcissist to the end. But oh how that woman could read.
As a writer, here's something else that bothered me. The adult Michael was overwhelmed with joy when the incarcerated Hannah taught herself to read and write. Years before, during the affair, we continually saw her moved by literature and music. She sobbed at the stories he read aloud to her. Laughed in delight. Was repelled. At the church on their bicycle trip, she was nearly overcome with emotion by the children's choir. She reacted: one of the aims of art. So Hannah finally learned how to read: Big deal. What did she get from her reading? If none of those classics she wept over translated to her insight or actions or values, she was shedding only crocodile tears.
At the end, when Michael took his daughter to Hanna's grave, rather than rejoice at his finally starting to open up emotionally, I was sickened that he had buried Hanna in the churchyard on hallowed ground where once she had wept at the sound of children's pure voices. That she kept the doors locked at an earlier church while 300 women screamed and burned to death took away some of the romantic glow for me.
After Hanna's death, Michael traveled to the US to carry out her bequest: give her saved money to one of the two survivors of the burning church. The words come out of the survivor (Lena Olin) with cold heat. "If you want catharsis, go to the theatre or literature. The camps were not catharsis. One gets very clear about these things. Nothing came out of the camps. Nothing." This scathing, to the bone true, speech keeps the film from edging in the direction of Holocaust denial. It's still too close for me to that scary genre "Holocaust palatable": Hanna Schmitz not quite the SS guard with a heart of gold, but the SS guard pitied for her illiteracy, rather than 6 million Jews lamented for their loss.
I'm all for films that upset and disturb people, but that's not what this film was going for. It was going for Academy Awards. If The Reader weren't so beautifully made, and so aggressively marketed by Harvey Weinstein who's not really thinking deeply on this one, it might not matter so much. But in these times where a Pope can reinstate a Bishop who preaches that the Holocaust never happened, it matters greatly.
It matters because Kate Winslet's fine acting and lush body obscure Hanna's immorality. It matters because this movie will win a lot of awards and more people will see it. And it matters because art matters, even if it didn't move Hanna Schmitz beyond her easy tears. If I were grading her reading, I'd have to give her an Incomplete.