Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph
Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz
Director: Stephen Daldry
Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Genius Products
Features: See Review
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: April 28, 2009
“It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.”
The Reader is a quiet, emotionally complex drama from a director who understands that kind of material. Stephen Daldry brought us the emotionally evocative The Hours, which landed a Best Actress Oscar for his leading lady, Nicole Kidman. His magic touch has continued.
This movie has to do with the Holocaust, but not in a conventional way. It’s shown through a microscope of two people in Germany, as a man named Michael Berg (Fiennes) reflects back on a summer that helped define the rest of his life.
At fifteen, Michael (played in youth by Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), who helps him when he’s ill in an alley. She is about twenty years his senior, but the two engage in an affair. There is lots of sex involved, but also something perhaps a bit more emotionally intimate: Hanna has Michael read to her every afternoon.
One day, she is gone, with no warning or explanation. Flash forward several years, and Michael is a law student invited with a small group of other students to witness a historic trial. And it is there that he finally sees Hanna again…she is on trial for war crimes as a former prison guard for the SS.
The trial has garnered lots of attention because one of the Jewish victims had written a book about her experience. And here, Michael realizes that he has one piece of information that could make a world of difference in the outcome of the trial for Hanna.
Does he disclose it? His professor thinks he has a moral obligation to the law to bring it forward. But it doesn’t excuse Hanna or her crimes; it would merely define the extent of her role in them. Hanna could say one thing to the court that could alter her fate, but she chooses to remain silent.
Over the years, Michael marries, divorces, doesn’t see much of his own child, and finds himself thinking about Hanna and, presumably, whether or not he could have or should have stepped in on her behalf. The film doesn’t focus so much on the horrors of the Holocaust, but on the lingering reaction to it, as demonstrated by the strange relationship between Michael and Hanna.
Hanna is a most enigmatic character, and Kate Winslet richly deserved her Oscar gold for her work. We never get close enough to her to understand how she feels about what she did, or the choices she made (including her final choice in the film), or even really how she feels about Michael. As a boy, he asks if she loves him. She gives a complacent nod, but there is no real feeling expressed.
The film doesn’t show us any kind of flashbacks to what Hanna did or didn’t do as a member of the SS. We here testimony, even from her own lips, but the terrible crimes committed during the war are kept mostly at a narrative distance. The story is told through Michael’s point of view, and if he can never get to the real heart of Hanna, then neither do we.
It’s remarkable that a film can take us into territory we’ve seen cinematically explored countless times, but manage to give us an entirely different way of looking at it…almost by inviting us to NOT look at it. The focus is not Hitler or Auschwitz, but two souls and the encounter that would change everything for one of them. It may have been Hanna who participated in the unthinkable, but it is Michael who is forever damaged by the experience.
I was so absorbed in the story, I frequently FORGOT about paying attention to the transfer…guess that says something about the strength of the movie. This is a beautiful looking period piece, and the Blu-ray presentation makes the most of old fashioned color schemes with solid detail and a clean overall look. It’s not particularly eye-popping, but it isn’t meant to be.
This is a dialogue-driven film, and as such, there aren’t many dynamic demands made on the TrueHD soundtrack, but everything is clean and clear and ambient, and the subtle music score is a nice addition to the dramatic sequences.
The disc includes 11 deleted scenes and several featurettes, one on the realization of the movie, one on the aging of Kate Winslet for her role, a look at composer Nico Muhly, one on the production design, and a conversation between director Stephen Daldry and actor David Kross. Rounding out is a trailer.
The Reader is a highly satisfying dramatic offering…well written, well acted, and well directed, and a movie with the ability to make us view the familiar with a different kind of lens.