Friday, February 27, 2009

The Reader

The Reader is awesome and yet, it comes with its flaws. Since the movie asks a lot of question by revisiting a sad chapter of world history, we often feel that the film can't necessarily answer to all these questions through the ambiguous nature of its characters. While there are obviously things that are not hard to figure out, The Reader, at times, feels that it stays "on the surface" of some questions at the centre of the story.

In 1958 in West Germany, Mikael Berg (David Kross), a fifteen years old boy, gets help from Hanna (Kate Winslet) to go home on a rainy afternoon. Once Michael is no longer sick, he returns to Hanna's apartment in order to thank her. This is the moment they begin their sexual affair (they don’t even learn each other’s names until they’ve had a handful of encounters). However, as they both want to know each other a little bit more, their relation goes further after Hanna begins asking Michael to read aloud to her as a prelude to sex.

Eventually, Hanna abruptly disappears, which destabilizes Michael. However, in 1966, Michael and Hanna more or less come across each other. He's a law student and she's on trial with five other women for being guards at Auschwitz. At this moment, we understand that Hanna has been living with a shameful secret and Michael sees that even though Hanna is a very humane person, he can't imagine that he loved a woman who worked for the Nazis during the Second World War.

Nothing is clearly cut in The Reader, for the character's behaviour suggests things more often than we think. Considering the questions at the centre of the film, one might wonder if it's always possible to know what one's government did at a time of war. To that matter, the film shows us really well the gap that exists between those who lived through the Holocaust (Hanna's generation) and those who haven't (Michael's generation). Indeed, the moment Michael sees that he loved a woman who took part in the killing of many Jews is the moment when the film explores the shame of Michael's generation felt toward the previous generation of Germans. Hence, the feeling of guilt by association with a generation (Hanna's) in which Michael doesn't recognize himself. Moreover, through this experience, Michael wonders about two things: 1) After what he learnt about Hanna, will he ever be able to feel that he's into any woman? 2) Given what he knows about the Holocaust would Michael have done the right thing? That is the question, because as Hanna subtly pointed it out to Michael at the end of the film, putting oneself in the shoes of someone is way harder than judging people.

Finally, although the film is extremely interesting, it probably didn't deserve to be nominated for the Academy Award for best film. Of course, there's nothing wrong with building a story almost entirely on ambiguousness. Some things can be figured out very easily while others can hardly be. This is where the movie's ambiguousness becomes a problem, because at the end of the film, we feel that there are many answers about the characters' motives that are left out. For instance, what really brings Hanna to love Michael? Nonetheless, despite a few loose ends in the story, the cast's performance is worth admiring. Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener) and David Kross, both respectively playing the old and the young Michael, are doing a good supporting job. As always, Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road) brings so much complexity to Hanna.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Reader
USA/Germany (2008)
Length: 124 minutes
Genre: Psychological drama
Screenplay: David Hare
Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, David Kross and Bruno Ganz

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