By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Stephen Daldry, U.K., The Weinstein Company
In 2008, we saw a variety of cinematic life forms from the United Kingdom emerge on U.S. screens, and if, when taken together, films like Hunger, Mister Foe, Man on Wire, and Son of Rambow don’t necessarily represent a high-water mark in output for the nation’s cinema, they at least portend some kind of new guard ready to pick up the mantle for a film culture muddied by laddishness and bland genre aping. Add in the reemergence of old hand Mike Leigh, who quietly dropped another great one in the form of Happy-Go-Lucky, and Of Time and the City, a stunning foray into documentary by the great, enigmatic Terence Davies, and you have the makings of a decent year for Tories in the cinema.
Sadly, these films will most likely be overshadowed by a pair of tastefully distasteful Holocaust features coming from classically Hallström-esque middleweight Brits Mark Herman and Stephen Daldry. Both Herman’s The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and Daldry’s The Reader feature ill-considered accents (why it remains acceptable for screen Nazis to speak the Queen’s English will forever escape me; point here goes to Daldry for tacking his actors closer to the source), vanilla Europudding casts, and, oddly, both focus squarely on the effects of the Holocaust not on the Jews, but on the Germans. Luckily for Brit-nationalism, one could argue that both films, by the very character of their financing and production, efface their creators’ origins (and imprints) almost entirely.
The Reader (based on a popular novel) manages to sidestep some of the thornier questions of Holocaust representation by locating itself in the rarely plumbed years of interregnum between Germany’s division and reunification. In 1958 teenaged, buff Michael (newcomer David Kross) falls ill on a subway car and is helped home by the clipped and severe Hanna (Kate Winslet). Theirs is an interaction that has no business leading to a love affair in any world outside of the movies, so, naturally, it isn’t long before Michael, freshly recovered from a months-long bout with scarlet fever arrives at her apartment with a bouquet just in time to take a gander through the doorway at a raised leg and discreetly exposed genitals. Soon enough the two become lovers and slip into a hazy summer romance ritualized by sex and pre-intercourse readings of classic texts. Winslet has been out and about in the rags touting her eschewal of a body double (“I’ve had two kids! My boobs are saggin’ and my stomach is chowda!”) for her nude scenes, but what’s most refreshing about their lovemaking is the focus on Kross’s nubile form. A lengthy full-frontal shot of the youth ranks among the most narratively justified cock shots in recent memory, a nice turnabout from the usual middlebrow gaze on the female figure.
Their relationship progresses, and then ends abruptly for reasons made clear much later. Given that we are still within the confines of a movie, it only stands to reason that they’ll cross paths again. Even though Daldry telegraphs this in any number of ways, let me spoil things here: Hanna was an SS Guard during the war involved in an atrocity in which several hundred mothers and daughters were locked in a burning church. Years after their affair, Michael is stricken when his law-school class takes a field trip to witness part of a war crimes tribunal (chronology in the film would suggest the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials) and he finds Hanna sitting defiantly as a defendant. In fictions, all good Nazis require some pathology or tic to render them other, and over the course of the trial it is revealed to the audience that Hanna is illiterate, a plot point gotcha unveiled via a true groaner of a flashback to the days of their affair. Michael’s knowledge of her illiteracy could affect the harshness her sentence, but he stays conflicted and silent. Repentance takes the form of sending Hanna self-recorded audio tapes of classic books during her years in prison, which she in turn uses to teach herself to read. It’s all fairly uninspired and mechanistic, and though frequent references to The Odyssey portend a true bildungsroman (Michael = Odysseus; Hanna = Penelope, or some such), Daldry seems most comfortable when the gear is set to harlequin.
The problems of The Reader rest not so much in its execution—the performances (save that of Ralph Fiennes as the haunted—read: blank—elder Michael) are generally credible; as shot by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, the thing certainly looks lovely; and even Nico Mulhy’s score lulls inoffensively rather than thickens the proceedings with drippy bombast. Rather, the film betrays a remarkable lack of intellectual sophistication. Mass-marketed movies set in postwar Germany are generally difficult to come by; filming war is easy, rendering cinematic thorny questions of national guilt and responsibility is not. Predictably, Daldry tackles the scarred German psyche with all the brio of first-semester undergrad, allowing obvious missteps in David Hare’s adaptation of the novel to pass unquestioned. Is crusty law Professor Rohl’s (Bruno Ganz) unkempt eyebrow, raised at the finish of a sermon on the difference between morality and legality enough to hint that all Germans share in the guilt of the Holocaust? Apparently not: cue a later scene in which a shaggy blonde student cries out in despair at how all the Germans are guilty, not just the few women on trial. And so on. This kind of unaffected eagerness made Daldry’s Billy Elliot largely a winning prospect, here (as in his previous stab at adaptation, The Hours) it reeks of cinematic naiveté. And even if Daldry were to resort to a by-the-book defense of his narrative inclusions, he’s still forgetting the cardinal rule of the adaptive process: everything shown in a particular medium should be well justified by using the best tools available within that medium.
Daldry’s tell-not-show approach is indicative of these types of films, which are more often showcases for capital-A acting than subtle filmmaking. (By that token, if we were to view filmmaking only as a question of means leading to ends, The Reader would practically be a masterpiece.) Winslet will win kudos, including possibly an Academy Award, but it’s really Kross’s movie; even if she does get nekkid and don the old lady latex for the finale, our Kate’s been largely effaced by the film at about midpoint. The film renders her a construct, a vessel in which to locate rage and hatred and vengeance against those direct actors of the Holocaust. Luckily Daldry is at least agile enough to recognize the contradictions of singling out the murderers among them (or even us—I still wait for the Holocaust film that renders the Nazis as untterly unremarkable and draws connections between their behavior and, say, American or British atrocities). A quick shot of Hanna walking down the aisle of the courtroom backed by hollered cries of “Nazi” and “murderer” from the gallery is full of a complexity that the director’s didactic dialogue-leaden scenes never muster—all the hecklers were, obviously, Nazis themselves, and Hanna becomes a convenient scapegoat for their own guilt. So, even though the narrative body is forged nearly entirely from schematic nonsense, a few blips of filmmaking cognizance sprinkled throughout suggest a half-awareness generally lacking in this genre. The Reader almost rises to the top of the heap by default.