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04.21.09

reader

(A reader of my former column did an interview with me for his blog - go here to read it. I really went on a bit; I can be such a blowhard sometimes. I'll try to get a few more posts up this week, including a review of Caprica, the Galactica prequel. In the meantime, here's a review of a movie about a Nazi that left me curiously unmoved.)

IT WAS PROBABLY INEVITABLE that somebody, somewhere, would eventually make a Holocaust film that's really about something else altogether. Barely a decade after World W
ar Two ended, Hollywood was already pumping out films set in one of the war's theatres of action, though they were really just vehicles for a bit of melodrama (From Here To Eternity, D-Day The Sixth Of June,) an action adventure (Guns Of Navarone, Von Ryan's Express, Kelly's Heroes) or an exercise in grim trippiness (the utterly singular Castle Keep.)

It would be nice, however, to know just precisely what The Reader - which was nominated for five Oscars this year - is supposed to be about, if it isn't the Holocaust, which only looms over the story, much as the meltdown of the American auto industry looms over the Fast And The Furious films.

When a caption helpfully informs us that the first scene is set in West Germany in the mid-50s, we might be excused for sitting back and muttering to ourselves, "Ah, German war guilt." The camera settles in on Michael (David Kross,) a teenager hacking and shivering as he stuggles his way up a shabby street, practically swimming upstream against the pelting rain. A woman perhaps barely old enough to be his mother (Kate Winslet) takes pity on him, and helps him home, where he's bedridden with scarlet fever for months.



After recovering, he makes his way back to the woman's apartment with a bouquet of flowers and his thanks, and before you can say Marshall Plan, they've begun an affair that will last a summer and change the boy forever. We meet him again when he's grown into Ralph Fiennes, a divorced father of a daughter who, we quickly intuit, is kept at the same emotional distance as everyone else in his life.

As the older Michael, Fiennes adopts the same constant and pained expression that Jeremy Irons once brought to similar roles, and it begins to feel like the Year Zero generation's relationship to the war guilt of their parents has - at least in Michael's case - taken on the character of a perpetual case of migraine onset.

For her part, Winslet's Hanna keeps her brow furrowed with suspicion - the actress won an Oscar for her performance - which would be a hint that she's got something to hide if one of young Michael's teachers hadn't already informed us that "the notion of secrecy is central to Western literature." It's like the director's commentary track on the DVD has somehow leaked into the movie.

Hanna calls her underage lover "kid," and asks him to read to her as a sort of foreplay, and the summer passes in a torrent of Twain, Homer and Chekhov; if the film were set in the present day, would the boy be reading her from his manga collection, and dramatically reciting his Twitter feed?



His birthday comes, they have an argument, and she sends him away just long enough to make her escape, leaving his life for a decade until he sees her again. He's a promising law student at the university, and she's in the dock at a war crimes trial, a former SS guard accused of atrocities at her post at Auschwitz, and in the death march while fleeing the camp ahead of the Soviet army.

This, obviously, is the event that turned the eager and smiling boy into the emotionally distant man, and director Stephen Daldry tries to tease it out into something poignant enough for us to develop empathy for a woman who selected victims for the gas chamber, and opted to keep the doors of a burning building locked, rather than deal with the chaos that a bunch of frightened, burning, dying women would cause.

A tall order, and you can't be too surprised to learn that Daldry isn't quite up to the task. Frankly, it would be a daunting challenge for a director with twice his skill, though one presumes that most directors would wisely see an unwinnable battle ahead of time and make their excuses. The whole unlikely project turns on Hanna's illiteracy, and her unfathomable decision to take the fall for the rest of the hard-faced, harridan camp veterans rather than admit as much to the judge.

Michael knows the truth, however, and his own decision to hold his tongue rather than intervene on her behalf haunts him, and by way of an apology he starts recording his own books on tape for Hanna, sending them to her in prison, but refusing to read the letters she painfully writes back, as she teaches herself to read and write using Michael's tapes as her correspondence course.



Very few stories hold up to having their basic details reduced to a handful of anecdotes, but there's something about The Reader that nudges the story's improbabilities from silly to obscene. It all gets to be a bit much near the end, after Hanna's death, when Michael tries to make amends for his former lover, going so far as to bring her scant legacy - a roll of deutschmarks in an old tea tin - to a woman (Lena Olin) who survived the fire Hanna presided over so dutifully, and who made the pursuit of justice for the victims of all the Hannas her life's work.

He even makes a trip to Hanna's grave the centrepiece of his attempt at reconciling with his estranged daughter. Hanna, it's clear, was the only love of Michael's life, and he needs to make amends for her, regardless of his innocence of her crimes - a project that can be summed up neatly as "Love me, love my Nazi."

If only German war guilt could be assuaged as easily, and its perpetrators as abject and pitiful. It might have worked if the metaphor employed by Daldry and Bernhard Schlink, the author of the bestselling novel on which the movie is based, weren't so grossly inept. "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" is the question no German over 65 can answer without reservation, and by now one assumes that no one is telling the whole truth. Hanna's illiteracy is the emblem of her little secret, and even when she's on trial, she's still unwilling to make a confession - or at least that's what I was able to bring away from The Reader.

It doesn't make any sense. As Rick Groen pointed out in his Globe & Mail review, "for the analogy to work, Hanna wouldn't be illiterate; she'd be feigning illiteracy." An illiterate Nazi SS concentration camp guard is still, in the end, a Nazi SS concentration camp guard, and for some reason I wasn't able to factor her willingness to relieve a 15-year-old boy of his virginity as a mark in her favour. To his credit, Daldry seems aware that nothing will redeem Hanna in our eyes, which might explain why the film ultimately feels so halfhearted, and ultimately so pointless.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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