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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?”