Given that it’s partly about the Holocaust, and followed in the wake of successful award-winners like Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful and The Pianist, Stephen Daldry’s confident and elegant adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s popular novel was predictably denigrated with the term ‘Oscar bait’ when it was released in 2009. Granted the subject has been synonymous with awards success, but surely it’s time that we moved on from simple off-hand dismissals and accept that filmmakers and their charges want to do justice to this most difficult of subjects, or their source material, and therefore often produce some of their best work in doing so. (It’s a mere ironic twist-of-fate that Kate Winslet, who won an Academy Award for her performance here, sent-up the serious actor’s yearly quest for glory in the sit-com Extras a year or two earlier.)
Needless to say Winslet is superb in this film. She plays Hanna Schmitz, one of two central characters, and the narrative follows her relationship with Michael Berg (played as a younger man by David Kross and an older man by Ralph Fiennes) as it develops over the course of around 40 years, from the late-1950s to the mid-1990s. They initially meet in post-war Berlin when 35-year-old Hanna finds the ill 15-year-old Michael shivering on her doorstep; she takes him into her apartment and saves his life, an act of kindness that leaves an impression on Michael (though one that will soon be forgotten about by the viewer when revelations about Hanna’s involvement in day-to-day operations at Auschwitz during the Second World War arrive). The pair begin to see more of one other and their relationship quickly becomes intimate, with the age difference being a startling factor; a couple of sex scenes here are surprisingly graphic, though they were shot at the end of the production, after Kross had turned 18. Due to Hanna’s illiteracy Michael reads books aloud to her, and it’s this simple act that seems to sustain them (and indeed that reestablishes their bond years later). During their first and only summer together Hanna remains distant and preoccupied; is the problem her illiteracy, or Michael’s age, or is something else on her mind? To the inexperienced boy Hanna’s behaviour presents an unsurmountable stumbling block, and they begin to argue more and more until Hanna is offered a promotion at work and suddenly disappears.
We see Michael in his early 20s, studying law, his path unexpectedly colliding once more with that of the older, greying, troubled Hanna. Gradually Kross gives way to Fiennes’ sullen Michael as the narrative moves quickly through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with Winslet’s age making her more suitable for playing Hanna throughout. The make-up department ages her (and one or two of the other characters) very well. A team of 12 special effect artists, make-up artists, stylists and supervisors worked on The Reader, and on some days Winslet underwent 7 or 8 hours’ worth of make-up to appear as an older woman. The work needed to age Michael from 15-year-old boy to young student was obviously not as onerous, but is also impressive, while transitions between the two actors are well-thought out; at one point a train with the younger Michael disappears into a tunnel only to re-emerge with the older Michael sitting in the exact same place.
It’s a moving love story, albeit one that doesn’t exactly develop in a straightforward, uplifting fashion: theirs is a stop-start affair, it dominates the lives of both parties even though they are only together for very brief periods, and it seems doomed from the off. The film is crisply shot by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges – Deakins worked on some scenes early on in the production when Winslet was unavailable; by the time she arrived Menges had taken over as Deakins had other committments – but what’s most interesting about their work is the way the colour gradually seeps out of the film, reflecting the changes to the lives of the two protagonists. The material set in the 1990s is perhaps best summed up by the stark, modernist environs of Fiennes’ apartment and workspace, and as the characters age and become greyer and paler so does the world around them. The Reader has youth, hope and colour in abundance at the start, but there’s very little left by the time it glumly peters out.
There’s an inherent risk in inviting audiences to care for a character who, within the story, has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds (thousands?) of innocent people. I’m not familiar with Schlink’s novel, but Daldry’s film spends a fair amount of time on Hanna’s trial, and the subsequent punishment she endures for her crimes, even though the story sweetens the bitter pill by implying she wasn’t quite as responsible for some of the atrocities at Auschwitz as the court thinks. This was one of the reasons why the film was met by angry criticism at the time of release, with some critics suggesting it skirted around the subject of the Holocaust, and that by not directly showing Hanna’s involvement at the concentration camp it was pandering to audiences who would have found the material unpalatable. Indeed you could describe The Reader as ‘tasteful’ for a couple of reasons: on a more positive note it includes a melancholic orchestral score and looks the part with its detailed period production design, while the presence of a couple of Britain’s leading thesps will always attract a certain type of crowd to the cinema. Yet there’s also a degree of negativity associated with the word these days, certainly in cinematic terms: it suggests a film has masked its lack of emphasis on a supposedly ‘tricky’ subject with pleasant but unnourishing aesthetic pleasures. At the time of release a frustrated Daldry pointed out that the film was primarily supposed to be a love story, as opposed to an in-depth study of the Holocaust or of Germany’s post-war soul-searching, but I have to admit I was left with a nagging feeling that this otherwise well-made film is too tentative in its exploration of recent history.
Directed by: Stephen Daldry.
Written by: David Hare. Based on The Reader by Berhnard Schlink.
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz.
Cinematography: Chris Menges, Roger Deakins.
Editing: Claire Simpson.
Music: Nico Muhly.
Running Time: 118 minutes.