Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Reader (2008)- R

Review submitted by d.r.

The Reader has become something of a frequent flier in conversations at home. Our discussions flit and hover like disturbed hornets around whether criminal sex with a juvenile adolescent, and failing to unearth wickedness in someone who is a party to the horrific crimes of the Nazis, are fit subjects for cinema that suggests sympathy with the characters. One of us is certain that severe embarrassment over illiteracy cannot possibly be enough to explain becoming an SS guard, but the other thinks that social unawareness and expedience could do so. Our contrary interpretations are that ordinary human limitations and ineptitude, sadly, can explain essentially all the events of the film, OR, more antagonistically, one character is severely damaged and the other evil, and the story irresponsibly underplayed this.

Regardless of the correct interpretation, The Reader is a brilliant film well deserving of Best Picture nomination. The film did not win Best Picture perhaps because its controversial content.

The story follows the lives of two people 20 years apart in age. It begins with a brief love affair and ends in tragedy. Principal actors are Kate Winslet (clearly a superb performance by Kate Winslet, winner of the 2009 Best Actress) as Hanna Schmitz, Ralph Fiennes as Michael Berg, and David Kross as Berg, at a younger age.

The sex is often lovely and very explicit. It could titillate were it not for the painful and tragic events to follow. Hanna Schmitz skillfully and erotically seduces a young boy into a sexual affair. However, after a time, she will not accommodate his lust until he reads to her: classics, plays, poetry, novels, and short stories. She basks in these occasions; attentive, curious, delighted, eclectic, and liberated. It becomes clear to Michael that she is illiterate, though she will not say so. One day he finds her apartment vacant and he is devastated.

The events that follow leave an emotional scar on Michael Berg from which he never recovers. We follow him into law school where Hanna Schmitz’s and his paths cross again; he as a law student observer and she as a defendant on trial for Nazis war crimes. It is soon clear that her perception of the events in question was that she was not a hands-on contributor to societal catastrophe. Rather, she viewed them with neutral emotions and with pride in her work skills and orderly accomplishments.

The engrossing, prolonged, strongly sexual romance early in the movie, in the midst of immiscible backgrounds, unequal ages, and disabling limitations of character, is genuine for the enacted lives and circumstances. For Michael it was a deeply erotic and love experience. However, for Hanna, was it solely perfunctory as a means to have “a reader?” Reviewers and acquaintances complain of the criminal sexual taking of a 15 year old boy. Others object that Hanna Schmitz is unredeemable Nazi dross. I think neither criticism suffices. Yes, the sex is problematic and consequential, but with reliable heat, it maintains intimacy in its time. The characters invoke compassion.

My partner and I have hardly resolved the questions noted at the start. In defense of my position, I think the invitation to forgive Hanna Schmitz implied in The Reader does not mean support for predatory sex with a minor, nor dulling the anger due the Nazis, nor halting justice. But it allows us to look closer.

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