Saturday, 21 June 2014

Movie Review: The Reader (2008)


A romantic drama set in post-World War Two Germany, The Reader is a passionate story of first love, retribution, and the lingering ghosts of the Holocaust.

Starting in 1995, the movie is told in flashback from the perspective of middle aged German lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) who is about to visit with his grown daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung). Back in 1958, the teen-aged Michael (David Kross) is struggling home from school, feeling very sick. He almost collapses in a building doorway. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor in her mid thirties who lives in the building, helps him to find his way home. After recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, Michael returns to thank Hanna. They start a passionate affair, despite the difference in age.

Whenever they meet, Hanna asks Michael to read to her from the literature books that he is studying at school, and their relationship revolves around his reading from a variety of texts and episodes of intense sex. But within a few months Michael starts to get distracted by attractive girls more his age at school, and the relationship with Hanna ends abruptly on a sour note.

In 1966, Michael is a law student, studying with Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) about the moral responsibilities of German citizens during the Holocaust. As part of the course, Rohl exposes his students to the on-going trial of concentration camp prison guards, accused of enabling the death of hundreds of inmates. The trial courtroom holds a shocking surprise for Michael, as the past, the present and future suddenly collide.

A German - American co-production directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by David Hare based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is an intricate examination of the ripple effects of the Holocaust through generations of German society. This is an engrossing, sometimes intense film, distilling a nation's self-reflection down to individuals seeking difficult answers through the thickets of past atrocities and a growing moral outrage.

Hanna was old enough to play a role in the closing years of the war, Michael was born during the war, while for his daughter Julia, the war is just a dark part of history. The struggle to understand how Germany stood still and allowed mass barbarity to unfold echoes down the years. For Hanna it's personal anguish, for Michael it's real and emotional connections with his parents' generation, and for Julia it's about understanding the silent shadows that haunt her father.

Michael also has to decide how much he should reach back into history and contribute to his country's grapple with its dark past. He has an opportunity first to influence and then to educate and soothe, and his decisions will have both predictable and unforeseen implications.

The Reader gives voice to Holocaust survivors through the character of Ilana Mather (played by Alexandra Maria Lara as a younger woman in 1966 and Lena Olin as an older woman in 1988). At the trial witnessed by the Michael as a law student, Ilana finds some measure of justice more than 20 years after she was supposed to die. But Michael will realize that while Ilana may have cheated death, the chill in her heart is eternal.

The film draws parallels between literal and metaphorical illiteracy. Is not knowing to read any excuse for not understanding the pages of an unfolding history? Hanna has to decide how much responsibility her generation has to assume for the genocide of millions, in a case of a mammoth collective wrong resulting from an infinite number of seemingly honest individual decisions.

Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Hanna. It's a stunning performance, spanning 30 years in the character's life, and Winslet is as convincing as a bus conductor in her 30s, still burning with passion and unresolved secrets, as she is as an elderly woman in her 60s, having paid her dues and reconciled with her past. The Reader hinges on the twitching internal torture playing out behind Hanna's eyes, and Winslet conveys the agonizing conflict between duty and horror, where once they were the same thing but in the cold light of defeat have formed a scar on the face of humanity.

Thoughtful and provocative, The Reader is an impressive masterpiece.






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