After having watched The Reader I realized something interesting: It is a movie about guilt and involves a former guard at Auswicz, but this description simultaneously tells you everything and nothing.
I will not spend much time on the plot, which is beautiful. Or on the writing, which feels like a punch to the gut. Or on the direction, which is unquestionably splendid.I will speak, instead, of the experience of watching Kate Winslet playing Hanna Schmitz.
When you first see her, she is a middle-aged woman, still beautiful, still vibrant, but possessed of demons that we can only guess at. She can be brusque, almost cruel, and yet is capable of tenderness and joy. You can understand the fifteen year-old Michael’s fascination with her. There is a scene in a church where she is moved to tears by the choir, and Michael observes her, smiling. Winslet is so radiant in that scene that you can understand what he feels like to bask in it.
When we see her next, she is on trial for being complicit in the murder of Jews at Auswicz. I cannot overstate how much heavy lifting Winslet does in this segment. The trial itself has some of the most interesting dialogue I have heard in the movies. Consider how difficult it might be to try and humanize someone like that. Oh, I don’t mean “humanize” in the sense of excusing her guilt with any kind of pop psychology. But think about how the only faces of the perpetrators of the Holocaust that we encounter in the history books and in fiction are the ones who are shown as obviously evil. Eight thousand people worked at Auswicz, yet only a handful were convicted of murder. Did the rest of them not know what they were involved in?
The third act shows Hanna as an old woman. It shows how a haggard, almost zombie-like prisoner suddenly finds herself rejuvenated when she begins to receive tapes of Michael reading out loud to her, as he used to during that summer years ago when they were lovers. From Hanna’s standpoint, she had two lives: one involving her job as an SS guard, and another involving her affair with the young Michael. It is in this segment that these two lives collide. It all culminates in a scene of surprising power between Hanna and Michael, where little is said but much is resolved. Watch Winslet’s eyes and body language in this scene. Watch how she tries to reach out from the world she lives in to the world she once had, and how she reacts to him as the scene progresses.
The counterpoint to her performance is provided by a pair of actors – David Kross playing the younger Michael and Ralph Fiennes playing the older one. While Kross has done an absolutely fabulous job, his role is more of a foil to Winslet’s character in the first two acts. It is Fiennes who really brings home how much these experiences have affected him. Watch how he struggles with his own guilt in the scene with a Holocaust survivor (played by Lena Olin) who testified against Hanna at the trial. It is amazing how much the man conveys while playing such an emotionally closed-off character.
As good as they both are, the movie belongs to Kate Winslet. The Oscars have had a dubious tradition of honouring the person rather than his/her work in a movie. What with Winslet being nominated so many times without winning anything, I always feared that she might finally end up winning for a decent performance in a weak year. The good news is, The Reader features her best performance to date — if she hadn’t won for this one, she might as well not have won at all. The even better news is, she’s still working.