Many a time I’ve wondered – and I’m sure many others have pondered this as well – when will there be a movie that combines THE GRADUATE with JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG? Enter THE READER, a film based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. Stephen Daldry, twice nominated for Best Director Oscars for BILLY ELLIOT and THE HOURS, (he received a third nomination for this) uses his quiet, reserved style to tell the story of a 15-year-old boy’s affair with a 36-year-old woman in post World War II Germany. Only in this case, in-so-far as its comparison to THE GRADUATE, Mrs. Robinson was a former SS guard at Aushwitz. Koo koo ka choo.
The story is seen through the sad memories of the boy, Michael Berg, as an old man played by Ralph Fiennes with an undertone of quiet heartbreak seen in the first shot. It begins in 1958, Michael at age 15, meeting and entering into an affair with Hanna Schmitz, a tram operator in Heustadt, Germany. Kate Winslet, as Hanna, begins the affair with an aggression I can only imagine comes natural to a former Nazi, and would be seen as perverse if the gender roles were reversed. However, she does demonstrate vulnerability in her insistence that Michael read to her before sex, a tactic I think would have actually worked to get more students excited about their reading assignments. In her reactions to the stories read to her, Winslet shows the character to have even an element of childlike whimsy, a hard sell given the fact that she’s a Nazi pedophile. Acting!
The affair ends abruptly, and Michael, his young life portrayed by David Kross, is next seen in 1966, in law school. The initial scenes with Kross as 15 year old Michael show a range of emotions as a young man in an affair with an older woman, trying to balance home life, the affair and the average desires of a 15 year old, but Kross’ real chops are accessed in the scenes of ’66. He takes part in a seminar that takes students to a trial of women accused of being guards responsible for countless deaths at Auschwitz. Now, this would not exactly be the time for Bogey’s classic line, “of all the gin joints in all the world…” but who should show up as one of the defendants but Hanna Schmitz, on trial for allowing 300 men, women and children to burn alive in a church fire during the evacuation of Auschwitz. Though the seminar scenes with other law students are unrelated to the story of Hanna and David, they aren’t preachy and they allow us to see Michael’s tortured silence as he keeps his past with one of the defendants to himself, even as one of the students attempts to call him out on it. Kross plays this conflict well, especially when the secret he shares with Hanna could possibly save her at trial and he is unsure as to whether to come forward.
Ralph Fiennes takes over the final act as the older Michael Berg, wearing a look of guilt and sadness he combines with an undercurrent of anger when he finally meets Hannah face to face after more than 30 years. The meeting has an array of emotions all delivered perfectly by two great actors. Another collection of such emotions is seen in a late scene with the older Michael and Auschwitz survivor Ilana Mather, played by Lena Olin, all scenes which challenge the viewer to feel those conflicting emotions as well.
I was biased this year at the Academy Awards. I loved Anne Hathaway in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, and I thought Meryl Streep was terrifying (in a great way) as the nun in DOUBT, so I thought Kate Winslet was the longshot for the Best Actress. However, she definitely brought her A Game, especially in a courtroom testimonial which actually makes you feel sorry for an Aushwitz guard…and that takes talent. However, it was the three main actors working together – the young David Kross doing well amongst heavy hitters – brought together with subtle brilliance by a director who excels in such subtlety that gave the movie such dramatic power. THE READER uses that power to challenge the viewer to come to terms with these various emotions, and while the plot lines may be similar, in that regard it attempts different goals than THE GRADUATE or JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. But yeah, they’re good movies, too.