Intrigued by Kate Winslet's Oscar victory, I finally went out this weekend to see "The Reader". The movie documents the brief romantic liaison between a teen-aged boy and an older woman in post-war Germany.
The film derives its name from the strange, somewhat perverted ritual in which the woman instructs the boy to read to her before or after each of their amorous encounters.
Unquestionably, the film is excellently acted. Kate Winslet deserved the Oscar without a doubt. Her effortlessly portrayal of Hannah Schmitz's coarse commonness makes Hannah's few emotional breakthroughs in the movie seem especially poignant and real.
Hannah has no back story and the extreme simplicity and repetitiveness of her life is shocking at times. She is both beautiful and disturbingly ignorant in a way that at first charms and later reviles.
Likewise, 18 year-old German actor David Kross plays the young boy Michael Berg (who is only 15 at the start of the movie) to a tee. His awkward gawkiness belies the inappropriateness of the grownup actions he is committing with Hannah. At the same time, his unbridled enthusiasm and wonder at his first experience with a woman draws the audience in to remember their own first experiences with love and loss.
Yes, loss because, alas ,such a clandestine and taboo affair can not continue. Hannah disappears without a trace. Michael is devastated but appears to recover. It is here that the audience is torn from a Lolita-like daze and thrust into the harsh reality of the times. Fast forward to Michael in law school where his class is studying a live trial of six female Nazi prison guards accused of participating in the murders at Auschwitz. Among them is Hannah.
Here the film descends into a myriad of questions with very few answers. Is the law moral? Which is of greater importance, what we feel or what we do? Does Hannah learn from her experiences? Does Michael? However, using the horrors of the Holocaust as a backdrop to explore these themes comes across as unnecessary and perhaps even disrespectful.
As the story moves forward in time 20 years to an adult Michael played by Ralph Fiennes, the effect of his childhood molestation at the hands of a now elderly, incarcerated Hannah becomes jarringly clear, as does the extent of Hannah's own unapologetically shallow ignorance.
As this progression occurs it seems increasingly pointless that these two characters---a decrepit child molester/Nazi war criminal and a deeply emotionally disturbed man---should have any mention alongside the victims of the Jewish Holocaust. Surely the ineptitude of both of these characters' lives could have been exemplified in some other fashion and one begins to wonder if the use of the Holocaust theme was warranted or merely a exploitation for shock value.
This film may have meant to use the issue of German guilt to show how people can commit the crime of inaction by standing by and doing nothing to prevent injustices from occurring. But were The Reader's creators guilty themselves of the same crime in letting this oddly controversial-for-no-reason storyline make it through to the big screen?
In the end the audience is left in a state of perplexed silence holding a mixed bag of emotions ranging from some semblance of pity to genuine outrage and disgust. Most of all we are left wondering, what was the point of all this?
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