This adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s well-received novel by writer David Hare and director Stephen Daldry is intelligent and impeccably crafted. But like their collaboration on Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” (2002), it’s also rather remote and chilly, the sort of film in which craft trumps heart; one can admire “The Reader” without being moved by it. And it never manages to make the plot element emphasized in the title a metaphor that genuinely illuminates its message.
“The Reader” deals with the genocidal crimes of the Nazi era, but it isn’t so much about the Holocaust as it is about the guilt that Germans had to struggle with after the war, particularly in terms of the relationship between the wartime generation that had participated in, or at least silently accepted, the horrors the Nazis perpetrated and their children, who came of age after the fall of Hitler’s regime and had to cope with the fact of their parents’ complicity.
The character from whose perspective the story’s told is Michael Berg, played as a young man by David Kross and as a man by Ralph Fiennes. In 1958, at fifteen, he has an affair with an older woman, stern but attractive streetcar attendant Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who instructs him in the art of lovemaking while encouraging him to read to her from his schoolbooks before or after their less literary pursuits.
She abruptly disappears, however, and eight years later, when Michael is a member of a law school seminar taken by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) to attend a trial of women on trial for crimes committed as SS concentration camp guards during the war, he finds that Hanna is not only among the defendants, but the one deemed most responsible for the deaths of a group of prisoners they were assigned to watch. The young man is tormented over the revelation, not just because he has to come to terms with the guilt of a woman he’d loved, but because he alone has information that could, if made known, mitigate it. But for reasons that involve shame of various kinds, he doesn’t tell what he knows, and Hanna receives a long sentence.
Still, Michael is haunted by the woman, and years later he begins sending her tapes of him reading, in effect recreating their earlier relationship. And she responds to them in a way that suggests growth of a kind, though ironically that very process makes her comprehend the enormity of her guilt and feel its burden more heavily. And a postscript involving a Holocaust survivor pointedly emphasizes that her guilt is beyond any easy forgiveness.
It’s clear that “The Reader” is intended to personalize the issue of how the post-war German populace had to face up to their shared responsibility for the atrocities that the Nazis perpetrated through the story of Hanna and Michael. But the visceral power is undermined by Daldry’s studied, cerebral approach, which makes even the intimate scenes between the two in the first half more like artistic photo shoots than passionate encounters. It’s all very beautiful, as one would expect of a film that boasts not one but two great cinematographers—Chris Menges and Roger Deakins—but the very beauty detracts from the impact.
And the performances follow the same pattern. Technically Winslet is quite astonishing, but she doesn’t succeed in revealing the inner life of Hanna, who remains an opaque character more ashamed, it appears, of a lack of education than of her participation in atrocities. Similarly, Fiennes plays the older Michael as so rigidly controlled a figure that it’s impossible to discern much in him but a generalized sense of emotional stasis. Kross is actually better, though his agonizing during the trial sequences is perhaps too much of a contrast with the more reticent tack of those around him—not only Winslet but also Ganz. Some real tension is added by Lena Olin at the close as the concentration camp survivor with a brusquely realistic attitude.
An even more basic problem—which the book shares with the novel—is the use of reading and writing as the narrative devices that (I think) are somehow supposed to express both the flaws in the German character that made the Nazi regime possible and the means of change that can lead to an acceptance of national responsibility. (Presumably Hanna’s special love of a Russian author is meant to have special significance in that connection.) However the concept’s meant to be read, it’s one of those ideas that can seem deep on the printed page but, when translated to the screen, come off as more than a trifle pretentious and affected.
The result is that while one appreciates the ambition of “The Reader”—both Schlink’s and Daldry’s—it ultimately fails to do emotional justice to the subject it tackles.
But perhaps no work of art will ever be able to do that.