Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Reader: not just another holocaust movie

The Reader is a complex film that explores themes of love, barbarity, guilt, shame and secrecy. The triumph of the human spirit is often hard to find as the horror of the holocaust is revisited through a different lens, a seemingly ordinary but very flawed German woman.

There are many ghosts haunting this excellent movie besides its holocaust victims.

Twenty five years ago Meryl Streep won a Best Actress in a Leading Role in Sophie’s Choice. Kate Winslet took the glittering oscar prize this year in competition with Meryl’s outstanding portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt. Sophie and Hanna both have secrets that embody the mystery in each narrative. In Hanna's case her personal shame takes precedence over public condemnation but her secret is barely disguised from early on in the film. We are warned by a teacher's remarks that literature is about characters trying to keep their secrets hidden.

Amon Goeth, the crazed commandant from Schindler's List was played by Ralph Fiennes. He received a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly like holocaust movies.

It’s an exceptional cast who eat up their parts. Kate Winslet as former SS guard Hanna Schmitz deserved her Academy Award for a very believable and controlled performance. She doesn't rely on the hysteria much beloved by some Hollywood directors.

David Kross plays the young Michael Berg who meets and falls in love with Hanna when he’s 15. Like Kate’s, his performance is very convincing. Its sensitivity and subtly is complemented by Ralph Fiennes as the "mature" Michael. He specialises in this kind of wounded, introverted and ineffectual character.

Apparently some people were shocked by David’s immersion in “unhealthy” sex scenes with Winslet at such a vulnerable age (circa 18). It was fortunate for both that it was a summer affair given their frequent state of undress. More concerning was the health risk of all the cigarettes he smokes.

The scenes with Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) and his law students bring an almost clinical examination of individual and collective responsibility for the Nazi genocide. He challenges them with the distinction between morality and law and the class visits Hanna's trial. It's too much for some of them. The court’s judgment is a stark reminder that the law is unlikely to deliver justice much less deliverance.

It is a holocaust story but, as survivor Ilana Mather (Lena Olin) remarks towards the end, there’s nothing to be learnt from the camps. If you want catharsis, go to a library. (When Michael visits Auschwitz I was struck by the eerie similarity of the huts to many long deserted shearing sheds in Australia.) Ilana is right - the experience did not steel his resolve.

St.Peter-like, Michael denies Hanna and remains silent when he knows he should speak up. It mocks the silence of the Nazi era. But this is not a morality play. We are left to make our own judgments. Hanna's response to what happened: “The dead are still dead.”

As Rohl urges Michael, “ If people like you don’t learn from what happened to people like me, then there’s no hope…”

For Hanna there is little hope of understanding and none of redemption.

It is tightly directed by Stephen Daldry, from a carefully structured screenplay by David Hare. If you haven’t read the novel by Bernhard Schlink, hopefully the film will stir your interest in getting a copy.

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