Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Reader

Can we all sign a petition barring Hollywood from making any further films about the Holocaust? Even “Schindler's List,” unquestionably the finest film on the subject ever put out by the mainstream, falters when Spielberg prevents us from feeling what we should in order to paint a flattering, romantic (though certainly interesting) portrait of Oskar Schindler. Likewise, Stephen Daldry's latest opus conjures the memory of the greatest tragedy in human existence only to use it as an emotional crutch to grab the audience without ever bothering to earn our attention.

“The Reader” concerns Michael Berg, a lad who had a summer-long affair with an older woman in his adolescence, only to find her in court tried for war crimes as an adult. Berg is played by David Kross in his youth and Ralph Fiennes in his adulthood, though Kross gets the most screen time. As a young teenager Michael collapses with scarlet fever on the streets, only to be escorted home by tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). After the boy regains some strength, he visits her home to express his gratitude, and she seduces him.

For the entire summer of Michael's "recovery," he goes to Hanna's house for some nookie and, as per her request, reads to her. He brings all of his schoolbooks, from Huckleberry Finn to The Odyssey, and she gazes in awe as he recites these classics. One can easily guess why she asks him to read to her, why she has that look of longing on her face as that timeless prose pours out of Michael's lips or why she needs to have certain words defined, but Daldry saves that for later, presumably as a "twist."

These scenes between Kross and Winslet work because of the skill of the two actors, but they never lead anywhere and they’re insufferably repetitive. The entire first hour is a nonstop cycle of Michael’s illicit activities, with almost no variation between them. After a time I began to wonder if I was watching a bad copy of the film with a looping reel or perhaps, like Billy Pilgrim before me, I had come unstuck in time.

Then the film moves forward to deal with Hanna’s trial, where she must face accusations that she and other guards allowed 300 Jewish women to die in a burning church during the war. As the trial plays out, we learn that Hanna accepts responsibility out of shame of that condition that we easily guessed at the start. I’m hesitant to provide spoilers, but the only way that the “big reveal” will shock you is if you fell asleep in the first hour which, upon reflection, wouldn’t be a surprise.

After waiting all this time for the film to go somewhere, I suddenly wished it had stayed in its rut. I’ve always wanted a film that really examined what made Germans complicit in the Holocaust, what drove so many to join the SS, but the explanation we receive here is enraging. Not only is it too absurd to dwell on, but it twist the Holocaust around into an unfortunate mark on Hanna’s past instead of being, you know, the HOLOCAUST. I won’t go so far to say it disrespects the six million Jews and five million others who died, but it certainly disrespects your intelligence.

Mixed with Daldry’s poor direction—his haphazard and pointless intercutting between timelines especially sticks out— “The Reader” boasts fine performances from Winslet and Kross but fails in every other respect. In some ways I understand Hollywood’s softening of the Holocaust; I don’t know if any normal person could really handle the full scale of its horror. I myself have had great difficulty working my way through “Shoah,” the expansive, 9-½ hour documentary on the subject, because it’s so brutal. Nevertheless, films like “The Reader” continue the mainstream’s tendency of using the Holocaust as a tool, a means to facile string-tugging, instead of treating it with a humbled reverence. Perhaps one day we’ll see Hollywood come out with a film that actually bothers to tell the story of all those who died solely for their heritage the way it should be told, but in the meantime we’ll have to continue putting up with this sort of nonsense.

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