What we know about The Reader is this: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, and the young German actor David Kross put in fine performances in this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel. But there is so much here that we don’t know. What motivates Fiennes’ Michael Berg, at a particular moment among all others, to begin remembering his youthful affair with a tram conductor nearly twenty years his senior? What motivates Winslet’s Hanna to begin the affair? And what are the odds that this particular horny teenager, played by Kross, and this particular needing-contact-in-some-obscure-way older woman would be equally amenable to the affair in the first place? These people start out unknown and unknowable, and unfortunately are no clearer to us when the film ends.
Daldry and his screenwriter David Hare are less interested in character than they are in the Large Issues of the holocaust: responsibility, the possibility of absolution, the limits of understanding. They explore the ways in which the war folded innocence and guilt over on themselves—and not only in the odd morality of obedient Nazis. Here, a shower is both the murderous ruse from the concentration camps and a means of seduction between a young man and a former Nazi guard. Reading is both foreplay and lesson. Hanna’s relationship with Michael, whom she calls Kid, flickers between the maternal and the sexual.
Then there is the reading itself. The film plays with the idea of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights who won herself a stay of execution every night by telling the sultan a story. Here, Michael is the Scheherazade. But while the original Scheherazade tells stories to stay alive, we sense that Hanna makes Michael tell stories because she is alive and others are not. Or does she? It seems more likely that she is slightly unhinged and utterly criminal. At her trial, we learn that she has forced prisoners to read to her before selecting them to be sent to death. Telling stories has not saved them.
But the film implies that reading stories has saved Hanna. The Reader has an uncomfortable way of reminding us of an Oprah story (which the novel once was, many years ago), complete with a Woman’s Triumph Against Adversity. But before we make plans to give Hanna Schmitz posthumous membership in Oprah’s Book Club, let’s consider that this is an Auschwitz guard whose empowerment we’re asked to consider. Daldry emphasizes this point, in case we missed it, when Hanna almost literally hoists herself by her own petard, climbing on a pile of the books she can now read, as she prepares to commit suicide before her release from prison.
In the end, as in the beginning, it’s not clear what Daldry wants us to make of his characters. Should we feel sympathy for Hanna because she kills herself? Does she kill herself out of remorse, or because she’s afraid to live outside the prison? Or (and this is not impossible) because she no longer has an excuse to receive Michael’s tapes? Now there’s a twist on Scheherazade: the listener kills herself when the stories run out. There are more questions. When Hanna refuses to admit that she is illiterate, does she do this out of a sense of shame? Or out of responsibility, knowing she is giving up the chance to exonerate herself? Does she even feel guilt?
When she answers Michael’s question about whether she learned anything from her time in prison, she answers, as if it should be obvious, “I learned to read.” Lena Olin’s Auschwitz survivor says virtually the same thing at the end of the film, in different words, telling Michael that “The camps weren’t therapy.” Nothing came from the camps, she says; you can’t learn anything from the camps. So, if there is no Big Emotional Payoff from the camps, is learning to read the only thing you can do? Should we admire Hanna for her honesty?
If there is nothing to be learned from the camps, what does it mean that we have just sat in a movie theater to watch and learn from a movie with a Holocaust theme? I doubt that Daldry and Hare telling us to stick it. Perhaps they’re implying that they’ve caught us being voyeurs. Now that would be a truly interesting thing for The Reader. Because who doesn’t feel a bit the voyeur watching the camera lovingly follow every curve of Kross and Winslet’s bodies? It’s a provocative notion—though not a new one. Still, I can’t believe that that’s what the film has all been about. The notion is offensive—to think one would use the Holocaust as a vehicle to say we can learn nothing from the Holocaust, but why not watch some nude bodies for a while.
As for the other possibility, that nude bodies in a Holocaust film must always remind us of the dead of the camps, and tell us that our world is perpetually corrupted by the fact that such evil existed—well, if that’s what Daldry wanted to say, he should have done a better job saying it.
[For other views on The Reader, click here.]