I touched on briefly in a previous movie review about the current trend of World War Two movies to reevaluate the traditional archetypes of the genre. First of all in Defiance, Jews didn't go to slaughterhouse without a fight, then in Valkyrie, not all German officers carried out the orders of Hitler unquestioningly, and now finally with The Reader, not all German SS prison guards were evil. Erm come again? Did I just write that last sentence? Yeah I did. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian's film critic trashed this film with a one star for its shallow attempt to humanize and trivialize the actions of a female SS guard under the guise of literary fiction. Where this movie diverges from the first two is the fact that this is an entirely fictional work rather than an adaptation of a true story. So is the movie as morally bankrupt as Bradshaw digresses? Well, I'm still digesting the impact the movie has had on me. Certainly I don't feel that the movie trivializes the Holocaust, its victims or the guards involved. However it is guilty of ill placed sentimentality, that dares you to sympathize with the protagonist - or is that antagonist in this case? For that I take issue with this, furthermore I agree with Bradshaw about the sickening final coda of the film, which defies belief and believability. Performance wise, aside from Fiennes yet again wallowing in another phoned in rejected, dislocated lover role, everyone gives good emotional bang for buck.
The film is based on the popular novel written by Bernhard Schlink and published in 1995. The adaptation is written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry who did The Hours with Nicole Kidman. As a choice of subject the material is incendiary to say the least and touches wittingly or unwittingly on several taboos.
The story is told in flashback mode with Fiennes book ending the story with his detached / damaged and divorced lawyer.
David Kross plays Micheal, a fifteen year old boy living in an atypical German town in the mid nineteen fifties. Post War construction is happening all around as Germany begins its self rehabilitation after the long nightmare of World War Two and National Socialism. The film begins with Micheal inexplicably throwing up on the street in the pouring rain. Winslow's Hanna appears as an austere Nightingale and helps Micheal home after clinically attending to his panicked nausea. Micheal is diagnosed with Scarlett Fever and has to spend the next several months in lonely recuperation. Once recovered he goes back to where he met Hanna to say thank you with a bunch of flowers. This results in a sexually charged affair (is there any other kind) with vaguely pedophile undertones - He's only fifteen and Hanna must be in her forties at this point. Their affair is marked by an idiosyncratic ritual whereby before they make love Micheal is ordered by Hanna to read classic novels by Homer and Chekhov.
The intensity of the affair causes a profound shift in Micheal's social behavior, he becomes distant from friends and family, rejecting the advances of a girl his own age for the thrill and Oedipus driven lust for Hanna's ticket inspector - must have been the uniform. The relationship is over as mercurially as it began. Hanna is offered promotion to the station office which prompts her to pack her bags and leave. Micheal turns up to her flat to find it empty and hollow of the distant yet passionate tryst the two had created together.
Years pass by. Micheal grows up and begins studying to become a lawyer as part of his studies his seminar group attends the trial of six SS female prison guards for the war crime of murdering three hundred Jews during one of the notorious death marches at the tail end of the war. He is shocked to discover that Hanna is one of the accused and her testimony and admission becomes the center piece of the trial. Through the testimony of the mother and daughter survivors of the death march, Michael and we, the audience, learn the chilling facts of Hanna's evil deeds. How she'd pick and choose favorites to read books aloud to her, and then coldly send them to Auschwitz to be murdered. More horrific even, are the facts surrounding the murder of 300 Jewish women who were locked in a burning church to die during an allied bombing run. Through the course of the trial it becomes clear to Micheal that Hanna is illiterate and takes responsibility for the evil act in order to hide her shame.
Hanna is sentenced to a lifetime in prison, and Micheal is condemned to a lifetime of trauma and dysfunctional relationships as he attempts to come to terms with the stark reality that his first love had been a Nazi monster of the worst kind.
To be honest, up until this part of the film, which occupies the first two acts, I didn't really have much of a problem. Hanna played earnestly by Winslet is a pretty cold and unlikable character, even before the grand reveal of her Nazi past. Furthermore the court scenes where she has to face the survivors and attempt to justify the unjustifiable are logically constructed and act as crucible for much of German War Guilt. Considering the circumstances of the time - what would you have done? A question she poses to the judges in a critical scene. The immediate impact of the trial is admirably discussed by the students themselves in their seminar where the issue of Hitler's Willing Executioners is addressed unequivocally - why is it only these women were on trial? There were thousands of camps across Europe, Auschwitz alone had over six thousand workers, who only these six are being tried? Their teacher proselytizes the legal viewpoint about the issues of what is wrong and what is legal - although here it become muddied and the point in my view lost. The main issue here is the fact that even if you accept the defense that the guards were doing their jobs - there is still the issue of what is human and moral. None of what the defendants say remotely touches on the issue of being humane. They all operate from a falsehood, a point of bad faith, and its for that which they're guilty. Hiding behind orders and professional duty is sickeningly laughable in the face of the real horror that they perpetrated and perpetuated.
Where the film really falls apart is in it's post trial sequences. Hanna is now living a life behind bars and Micheal is stilling trying to figure out how to live his life with the knowledge of who she is. This is where I just lost the sense of authenticity and reality. He starts to record tapes of himself reading the books from their affair and sending them to her so that she can listen. When she receives these tapes it reawakens something inside her, and she becomes determined to learn to read for herself at last. Now I've two questions here for the writers. First of all, if I had been seduced by a mass murdering female nonce, would I really go to all this effort? Wouldn't I have rather taken a course of therapy and called the police to report a further charge to add to her crimes - that of seducing and sexually abusing a minor? He's supposed to be an intelligent lawyer after all. Secondly - why oh why do the writer think we'd give a flying turd with worms about this convicted murderer learning to read? I wouldn't mind if she'd started reading books about the Holocaust, and started to write a thousand lines - I mustn't trap three hundred women in a burning church and let them die. But oh no, instead the writers think it would make far more sense for her to read the classics instead. What exactly are they trying to say or what do they want to say here? This is the film's real crime - trying to create sentiment for this person. We never see her attempt to make sense and atone for what she participated and incited, that in itself is an inexcusable flaw.
Finally the ending of the movie is just beyond ridiculous and in complete bad taste. Micheal by the end of the film isn't much of a character to write home about anyway, he's a weak man that allowed a three month affair thirty years earlier to totally dominate his life. We've all had our fair share of emotional disasters that can impact our personal development - but this is beyond the pale with what we're expected to buy into. Quite simply the brevity and mundanity of their relationship just doesn't amount to the emotional damage he appears to keep running over and over in his head for his entire life. He attempts to fulfill her final wishes by giving the daughter, Ilana, from the trial, a tin with money inside it. First of all what is this supposed to mean? She's sorry? Here's a bit of cash to help with your life long therapy sessions? Buy some sweets with it to make up for all that starvation and torture? Okay if it was a tacit admission of penitence, fine, but Micheal, a professional lawyer - an adult, actually decides to go to New York and find Ilana to partake in this sick transaction. She's now living as a rich Jewish woman with fine artistic tastes in Manhattan - could you be anymore stereotypical? I mean every survivor had this - really? What are trying to comment here? That Jews like her were trying to profit from the Holocaust? Considering how coldly the scene is played I felt a hint of nausea that this was attempting a subtle dig here concerning that. She refuses the money, but the tin reminds her of one that she lost, so she takes that in another dose of unbelievable sentiment. Micheal feels the whole thing has allowed him to go through a catharsis. For me it I felt I'd been put through a particularly sick farce, but that's just my humble point of view.
For the life of me I don't understand why this story became so popular. A third of the movie attempts an erotic love story that failed on both counts of eroticism and emotional connection. The second part of the movie had its merits with its attempt at exploring how the next generation of Germans dealt with the knowledge of The Holocaust, but I think here that there had been a missed opportunity to show flash backs to Hanna's actual time as an SS guard. Structurally speaking it was vital for us to truly come to despise the woman, as any right thinking human would - I couldn't care less that she was unable to read and had been ashamed of the fact. The third act of the movie compounds this mistake further. As we, the audience, are in danger of actually daring to sympathize with her plight. Utterly unforgivable, she's no fictional serial killer, she's a character based on a repugnant act of evil. Why should we sympathize with someone like that? I may as well start praying for Myra Hindley's damned and burning soul at the same time. This film is guilty of irresponsible film making and exploiting one of Europe's darkest chapters for cheap sexual thrills and a criminally shallow exploration of German war guilt.