'The Reader': Film Review

'The Reader'
A love affair between a younger man and an older woman sharply reflects the conflicts between Germany's war and postwar generations.

During the making of The Reader, producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella passed away. This last film is a testament to the kind of productions each was associated with in his career -- films of entertainment, often with stars, that also reach out in terms of situations, themes and settings to embrace larger issues that confront society.

The Reader is a well-told coming-of-age yarn about a young boy growing up in postwar West Germany and experiencing his first love affair. But the outreach is to an issue crucial in that country but also genuinely disturbing to any viewer. This is the troubling dilemma of Germany's so-called "second generation," which had to come to terms with the Nazi era and a Holocaust perpetuated by parents, teachers and even lovers.

Certainly The Reader, for all its erotic scenes involving Kate Winslet, presents a difficult marketing challenge. The lively, nonlinear structure imposed by screenwriter David Hare and tight, focused direction from Stephen Daldry make this an engaging period drama. But German postwar guilt is not the most winning subject matter for the holiday season. The film opens Dec. 10, expands Christmas Day and goes national Jan. 9.

The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink's controversial German novel, deliberately places a Holocaust perpetrator at the story's focal point. But since we first meet her in an entirely different light, as a kind, loving and passionate woman, it explores the challenges of this second generation in navigating a welter of deeply psychological and morally complex issues.

The film opens in 1995 Berlin, where Ralph Fiennes plays aloof, emotionally numb attorney Michael Berg. We're swiftly conveyed back to 1958, when his younger self (very well played by David Kross) has a chance encounter that will forever affect him. Coming down with what he later learns is scarlet fever, he is helped home by a stranger, Hanna (Winslet). Upon recovering, he looks her up to thank her and is startled to find himself losing his virginity to her. They embark on an affair with its own kind of feverish urgency.

As part of their bedroom rituals, he starts to read to her from books by Mark Twain, Homer and Anton Chekhov. She calls him "Kid" and clearly an "oldness" afflicts her beyond her years. Yet there is a kind of role reversal in his reading to her that allows him to expose her to worlds she never knew.

Then she disappears. Eight years later, as Michael attends a war crimes trial as a law student in Heidelberg, she makes a startling reappearance as a defendant. Michael is shaken to his core by growing evidence that his first love is, by any standard, a monster. But how does one deal with a monster who is a lover? One can only condemn her; but in that condemnation, where lies the process of understanding?

The film makes no attempt to answer this question if indeed there is an answer. There is an explanation, not immediately apparent, for why Hanna found herself in a position to dictate life or death. But there is neither an excuse nor an offer of atonement ready for her.

Neither Hare nor Daldry shows us any easy way to look at this character. They muddy the waters and complicate the emotions, but the facts of her actions smother any possible empathy.

What remains unclear, in the film at least, is why Michael has seemingly never thought about any of this before 1966. Did he never question his father -- depicted here as a stern, unsympathetic man -- about what he did during the war?

To Winslet and Kross belong the gutsy, intense performances of the film. Lena Olin as a unyielding camp survivor and Bruno Ganz as a sagacious law professor put in memorable appearances. Fiennes is solid as the elder Berg, but by this stage of life the "oldness" Hanna once exhibited has caught up with him too, making his a somewhat listless role.

Superior production work in Germany by top professionals led by two of the world's finest cinematographers in Chris Menges and Roger Deakins gives what is a very tough story a fine professional polish.