Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Reader

Oprah Winfrey book club selections usually conform to a predictable formula. They largely feature female protagonists in rural settings, dealing with issues of abuse, addiction, and empowerment. This made Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader a bit of a ringer when it was selected, though one could argue victimization is an important element of the story. One of several Holocaust related films releasing this year in time for the Award season, director Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (trailer here) opens in New York today.

Schlink grew up as part of the German generation that came of age immediately following World War II. Entirely blameless themselves, they still had to come to terms with what their parents and teachers had done over the last twelve years. His surrogate in the film is the painfully sensitive Michael Berg, played as a post-war fifteen year-old by David Kross and as a present day middle-ager by a reserved Ralph Fiennes.

As the story begins, young Berg has contracted a rather nasty bug while riding the tram home from school. After vomiting in a strange courtyard, one of the residents takes pity on him, cleaning up and seeing him home safely. Upon recovering, Berg returns to thank the mysterious woman. Realizing the adolescent’s desire for her, the older woman embarks on a sexual relationship with Berg. Although she refuses to tell him her name, their affair falls into a regular pattern. Every day after school, he reads to her before they make love. Then one day, Berg comes to the apartment as usual, only to find she has cleared out without warning.

Though deeply hurt, Berg carries on with his studies, eventually enrolling in law school. There he signs up for an advanced course taught by the philosophical Professor Rohl. As part of their curriculum, they will observe the sensational war crimes trial of three women who worked as concentration camp guards for the SS. To Berg’s horror, he recognizes one of the accused as his former lover, one Hanna Schmitz.

In many ways, playwright David Hare’s screenplay is problematic. A great amount of time is spent on the Summer of ’42 set-up, effectively de-emphasizing the predatory nature of such a relationship. Things do pick up somewhat when the trial begins, largely thanks to the electric performance of veteran German actor Bruno Ganz as Rohl. When he is on-screen, the film’s IQ increases at least twenty points. However, the presence of such a character, a sixty-some year-old legal ethicist, raises a few unanswered questions, like what was he doing from about 1933 to 1945?

Ralph Fiennes largely appears as the older, emotional withdrawn Berg in order to frame the flashback sequences, sort of the English Patient without the bandages. In truth, Kate Winslet’s performance is quite accomplished, but in a way, that compounds the film’s problems. The more it humanizes her character, the more it seems to invite viewers to identify with an admitted war criminal and statutory rapist (at least in most states of the union).

Aspects of Berg’s actions as a law student are troubling also. Regardless of one’s feelings for Schmitz, he clearly allows a partial miscarriage of justice to stand. The character of Ilana Mather, the lone survivor of Schmitz’s atrocity, is also questionable. Portrayed by Lena Olin as a cold, wealthy Upper Easider, she seems deliberately drawn to be as unsympathetic as possible. However, she does have an important moment of moral clarity for the film when she reminds the middle-aged Berg he was also a victim of Schmitz.

Ultimately it is difficult to understand the moral center of the film or where it wants to lead the audience’s sympathies. Given the sensitive nature of the film’s subject matter, that is a bit of a problem. With so many Holocaust related films opening this season, it raises the stakes for a film like The Reader. While the film features excellent performances from Winslet and Ganz, as a whole, it is uneven and confused.

(On a related note: Inheritance airs on most PBS stations tonight. Review here.)