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The Reader: The Film

readerfilm“What are you looking for? Forgiveness for her or to feel better about yourself? If you are looking for catharsis, go to the theatre or literature. Don’t go to the camps.”

After the heated debate on The Reader: A Novel, especially that Hanna Schmitz is unaware of what she was part of during the Holocaust owing to her illiteracy, I walked into the Castro Theater not with the expectation in making sense of whether it’s her literacy-aided enlightenment or perception of guilt that causes her fateful decision. Nor was I interested in the coiled eroticism that has inevitably built up the film’s gimmick. The affair, which turned into a love story, between a 36-years-old woman and a teenage boy does not sicken me, although how sweat-glistened and taut-bellied Kate Winslet deflowers a curious teenage boy does pique my interest.

Albeit fussily adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s slender novel, the director makes an alarmingly true point right at the opening scene, that the grown-up Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) has never been able to sustain long-term relationship with women after that quasi-traumatic experience with Hanna Schmitz. He bids an awkward goodbye to one-night stand who doesn’t eat the breakfast he prepares. This quick scene sets the stance on Michael Berg’s somber revelations, as the movie from this point rolls into flashbacks that slowly discloses his liaison with Hanna.

The flashbacks are fairly faithful to the novel. As a discreet affair ensues, characterized by shots of decorously writhing flesh, tears, smiles, shouts and literature: Michael reads aloud to Hanna, Chekov, Tolstoy, and D.H. Lawrence, etc—until one day Hanna empties her apartment and disappears without a vestige. Then the story fast-forwards to the 1960s, when Michael is attending law school which took him to attend a court case that prosecuted women of Nazi war crimes. During the proceedings he comes to realize her secret, her shame, which has nothing to do with her being a Nazi prison guard: she’s illiterate.

The film, although graced with beautiful cinematography, repeats the flaw of the novel. Instead of getting core of the truth about guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust, the film exposes the deep vein of self-pity that runs through the novel, flattening Schlink’s already unpersuasive bid at generational soul-seeking. I am captured by the tight scene by scene of because I realize Michael Berg himself is a victim, not because of the ignorance on Nazi’s responsibility for the genocide but because he has been victimized by Hanna himself. Hanna herself is a victim because she took the guard job only to hide her illiteracy, as if illiteracy were an excuse for barbarism. Overall the film is better than the novel, but, like the novel, the metaphor is elusive, the narrative unconvincing and the overall effect vague and unpersuasive. Kate Winslet is gorgeous though–she just steals the show. She embodied Hanna Schmitz in every emotion and detail, often managing to evoke your sympathy. I’m troubled by the fact that Hanna’s state of mind remains unexamined, leaving far too many things things unclear.

By the way, to quote the Guardian UK, “why is the film being made in English? And, disconcertingly, the books Michael reads from are English versions. Won’t this be odd when, as almost certainly it will be, the movie is dubbed into German?”

11 Responses

  1. I always find it odd when the movie is better than the novel or more appealing. I guess I should get past the awkward sex scenes and get back to this.

  2. I have the novel on my shelf, and I refuse to see the movie until I’ve read it first. If I can just finish Gone With the Wind…

  3. I’m going to wait until the movie comes out on DVD but because it has been ages since I read this book , it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a re-read before watching the movie. Like Sandy said though, I have to catch up with you and finish Gone With the Wind!!!

  4. Hey Matt, you on Facebook? Oright, I didn’t see this movie. Not just yet anyway! 🙂

  5. I can’t bring myself to watch this movie, all I remember is Kate Winslet’s guest role in the brilliant show Extras, where she plays a nun during the Holocaust and yaps about how doing a Holocaust film will guarantee her an Oscar.

    art imititating (or in this case predicting) life?

    And on another note, Matt, I’m interested to know if you’ve read any Australian literature and if so what you thought of it (any faves?)

  6. I was ready to be disappointed (as disappointed one can be with a Winslet movie) but I came out quite impressed. I agree that the movie did carry the vagueness that was a problem in the novel and that Hanna’s mind was not examined, using illiteracy to explain her Nazi involvement. However, i did come to the conclusion that this was so it could represent that generation-guilt issue. What Hanna did (running away to cover her illiteracy), she thought it was perfectly innocent. Perhaps it was meant to convey the generation who thought they were not committing any crime in ignoring what was going on…

    The theory sounded better in my head…

    Yeah, I thought about the language thing too…many of the actors are German (well, except the Ralph and Kate) but what is one to do when Hollywood is at the centre of the world?

  7. You’ve raised the points that bothered me after seeing the movie, too. The movie was even more problematic for me than the book because I’d just finished the author’s new novel Homecoming, which has many of the same issues.

    In the end, I think both novels and the movie ask us to try to understand the perpetrators of the Holocaust, in a way that they do not deserve to be understood. I think, in the end as far as Hanna is concerned, The Reader is a story of personal triumph. She does learn to read. Are we meant to leave the experience feeling good for her?

  8. “the metaphor is elusive, the narrative unconvincing and the overall effect vague and unpersuasive.”

    Another quote from the same article.

    And from the NY Times review

    “the deep vein of self-pity that runs through the novel, flattening Mr. Schlink’s already unpersuasive bid at generational soul-seeking”

    Wouldn’t it be more honest just to link to those reviews, and then say whether or not you agree with them?

  9. Sorry – to add context to my last comment for other readers:

    I emailed Matt pointing out that his last paragraph was plagiarised from a Guardian review – since I included a link the comment was held for moderation.

    Matt has now amended his original review, but as you can see, there’s further evidence that this review is a cut-and-paste job, not an original opinion!

  10. I want to see this movie because I love Kate Winslet and the story sounds interesting, but I’m going to wait until I’ve read the book first.

    –Anna

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