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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: The Reader

Directed by Stephen Daldry

One of the unfortunate things about numerous films on a given topic being released around the same time is that the cumulative effect of seeing what are perceived to be similar storylines tends to wear on the folks who review films for a living. We saw this effect over the past couple years with the seemingly endless parade of narratives and docs concerning the Iraq war; this year, we’re seeing a similar issue with Hitler-era-Germany themed films, with The Boy with the Striped PajamasDefiance, and Valkyrie all being released within a short span. Now we have The Reader, which was further burdened with a much-overblown brouhaha between Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein around whether the film would release in 2008 or 2009. And really, all of that is unfortunate when it comes to The Reader, which is really quite a good film featuring a solid performance by Kate Winslet.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, who, when we meet her in post-War, late 1950s West Germany, is working as a tram conductor when she happens upon a sick teenager in the entrance of her apartment building. Hanna cleans the boy up in a brisk, no-nonsense manner and sends him home; after several months recovering in bed from a nasty case of scarlet fever, the boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) returns to Hanna’s flat with flowers to thank her for her help. Michael’s 15 years old to Hanna’s 36; nonetheless, one thing leads to another, and before you can say, “hey, is sex between a teenage boy and an older woman … appropriate?” the two of them are entwined in a sexual relationship in which Hanna plays the dominant role, setting all the rules, while Michael plays the role of the submissive sexual partner, obediently stripping his clothes off to service Hanna the minute he walks in the door.

Before too long, things take a slightly different turn, with Hanna asking Michael to read to her before they have sex. He obliges, reading to her mostly from the literature he’s reading at school. Hanna listens to him read, enraptured, and when she’s had enough reading for the day, more randy sex ensues. As one might expect when a boy is immersed in an inappropriate relationship, his relationships with his schoolmates suffer, and he thwarts the advances of a girl his own age who expresses obvious interest in him.

Eventually, Hanna disappears into the ether, leaving Michael devastated. Several years later, as a law student, Michael attends a trial of six former female concentration camp guards — and one of the women on trial is Hanna Schmitz.

The way in which David Hare’s screenplay of The Reader is structured, jumping back and forth between the older Michael in the 1990s (played by Ralph Fiennes), the teenage Michael in the midst of his relationship with Hanna, and the slightly older law-student Michael at the trial, tends to make the story somewhat hard to follow. Underlying all the business of the long-term impact of inappropriate sexual affairs, though, The Reader is really a story about German guilt and shame over the horror that was the Holocaust, refracted through the lens of a story about of a young man who fell in love with a woman he later finds out was something of a monster. This theme is further evoked symbolically through Hanna’s other secret — illiteracy — the shame of which drives her to conceal her inability to read, even though that fact would have cleared her of the more serious of the charges against her as a guard who sent countless Jewish women and children to their deaths.

Another problem with the story overall (and this is more to do with the source material than the adaptation) is the way in which it deals with a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman. Were this a story about a 15-year-old girl falling in love and having a sexual relationship with a 36-year-old man who turned out to have been a concentration camp guard, I suspect there would have been much more throat-clearing judgment critically around the appropriateness of an older man seducing a teenage girl (witness the much more vocal outcries against Hounddog and Towelhead, both of which place young female characters in sexual situations). Flipping the relationships around and making it a relationship between a young boy and a woman almost lends it an air of pseudo-respectability, with an overt air of “boys will be boys” and it being more acceptable for an adolescent male to learn the sexual ropes from an experienced woman than for an older man to deflower a young girl.

That aside, though, there are some quite good performances in The Reader, most notably from Winslet, who, like Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Doubt, really should be considered for nomination in the “Best” rather than “Best Supporting” category. In every scene of The Reader, Winslet plays the puzzling character of Hanna to perfection. Hanna is an emotionally distant, rather simple-minded woman, and while it’s hard to get a handle on her motivations, this is more the result of a storyline that paints her in a deliberately ambivalent manner than the way in which Winslet portrays her. In the courtroom scenes in particular, Hanna — as many real-life concentration camp guards were during the various post-war trials — appears confused as to why this is happening to her. She views the events of the Holocaust from a very black-and-white perspective: she was hired to do a job, and she did the job; yes, the job involved sending Jewish women and children to their deaths, but hey, that was the job description.

When asked by one of the judges if she understood that when the six guards each month selected ten women apiece to send to the gas chamber, she appears confused by the question. More women were coming in each day, she tells the judge, and there was only so much room to house them all. The old prisoners simply had to be culled had to make way for the new, she says calmly, as if she had been working, perhaps, in a slaughterhouse killing cattle. “Well, what would you have done?” she asks in a genuinely befuddled manner.

This line, more than any other in the film, holds the truth of the how the Holocaust happened within all that it says and does not say. From ordinary people like Hanna who took jobs guarding prisoners that required them to kill them, to the evolution and justification of Hitler’s chilling “Final Solution” for the Jewish race in Europe, to the everyday folks who simply turned a blind eye to what was happening to their Jewish neighbors and believed that millions of people were somehow simply being relocated rather than exterminated, the myriad decisions and indecisions made by countless people allowed the Holocaust to happen. The Reader addresses the guilt and shame of the many for the Holocaust, through the particular story of how Michael assuages both his guilt for loving a monster and the conflicted sympathy he feels for Hanna, and for some people, the way in which the storyline handles these issues will feel rather cold and unemotional.

But the truth is, there were, and probably still are, a fair number of German citizens who, even after they became aware of all that Hitler’s Final Solution entailed, and perhaps felt some guilt over the whole business, still bought into the Nazi propaganda about the Jewish race enough that they viewed the concentration camps as a necessary evil to rid Germany of the Jews, even if that meant relocation devolving into mass genocide. Hanna as a character, therefore, represents this ambivalent faction of German society coming to terms with what the Nazism embraced by many Germans really represented, while Michael evokes those who have struggled with bearing the guilt and shame of those who were horrified by all that the Holocaust entailed.

As such, the story of Michael and Hanna plays better when viewed in its metaphorical sense than in the literal, but even so, it’s worth seeing for the strength of the Winslet’s performance in particular.

-Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon