The Reader

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Reader

  1. replicasjewelry says:

    Whose tragedy it is, what should I say, Hanna’s? Or maybe the entire human, we are so narrow to forget or to forgive, how can we disdain Hanna? While how many Hanna it was in War World2? Countless! Why should she bear the entire fault for the history? And how could she bear that?
    Again, Hanna is just guard.
    And, what you would do?

    • It’s a good question, and one that Hanna herself asks at one point. It’s true, most of the time, we just go with the flow, and this was an instance where it meant being accessory to genocide.

      It is also the point that Michael’s professor makes. Societies do not operate on the basis of morality, they operate on the basis of law.

  2. Read Err says:

    I haven’t seen this yet, but but waiting for the Revolutionary Road hangover to leave me first, before I bravely venture into this one. You see, there’s only so much sadness someone can be suffused with, and Winslet has already set my insides awash in industrial-strength H2SO4, thank you very much! That said, what a performance by both her and DiCaprio. Have you seen it?

    About the SS guard Holocaust guilt in The Reader, these closing lines from a Jack Gilbert poem come to mind:

    “The women at Dachau knew they were about
    to be gassed when they pushed back the Nazi guard
    Who wanted to die with them, saying he must live.
    And sang for a little while after the doors closed.”

    • Haven’t seen Revolutionary Road yet, for exactly the same reason. I might get to it this weekend, though.

      The Jack Gilbert poem is quite something. Thanks for that.

      ~r

      • RE says:

        Ah, here it is at long last: “Dachau”!

        This week of the 19th seems special (if only to my mind) coz of “Dachau” and “dreaming” (or should I say Dachau Dreaming, after the song that’s a Tarantino favorite?) bookending it.

        I had no idea the “camp” Cobb’s (sorry, wrong story; Leo’s actually Teddy here) subconscious constantly checks into was Dachau, until boss spelled it out last weekend. And ever since, I’ve been fighting off this nagging need to locate my last “Dachau” reference point, poetically speaking, and HERE IT IS!

        (BTW, if you liked that bit of Jack Gilbert poetry up here, you’ll probably lap up this hauntingly lovely homage to him.)

        Coming back to the bookends, Scorsese’s “trademark flamboyance is exquisitely showcased in the astounding dream sequences” wrote boss last week, and it instantly put Shutter Island’s surreal mindscapes into perpective. But looks like in the post-lobotomy waste-, er, dream-land, surreality has been all but swept aside, paving the way for… sterility? (or so he says! I haven’t seen the movie yet.)

        Dunno if this back-to-back Martin-Christopher dreamathon tangentially reminds you of my comment on your Singam writeup — about two stars swapping scripts so “mass” can be defined three ways — but it certainly has me similarly surmising that Island and Inception are (instances of) two directors latching on to one Lone star so dreams can be dissected two ways — psychoanalytically AND “physically”. 😀

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