Conflict of Conscience

Kate Winslet is fantastic in 'The Reader,' but the film falls apart in its final two sequences

Director Stephen Daldry made one of my all-time-least-favorite films, The Hours, which was an exercise in pretending to be intelligent while spoon-feeding the audience an obvious and narrow series of platitudes that could be understood by microcephalic readers of The Secret and make them feel as though they'd engaged in something deep and profound while doing little more than picking $10 out of their pockets and two hours out of their lives.

So I was tremendously surprised to see how much better The Reader was. It's still not a very good film, but it's a long way from the middlebrow pandering that was The Hours.

The story itself is clever and rich with possibility: In Germany in 1958, a 15-year-old boy has an affair with an older woman. Eight years later, he is a law student attending the trial of some former Nazi guards and is shocked to see that his former paramour is one of the defendants.

All this would be powerful enough, but Daldry, ever the manipulative sap, loads the film up with atrocious violin music. I mean, if someone is pleading for her life, it doesn't help me if you turn up the volume on some D-minor noodling by a raft of desperate bow-pullers. I already understand that the scene is dramatic. Thanks, though, for the enormous hint.

While Daldry does everything he can to ruin this movie, there's really only so much he can do, because he didn't write the original story (it's from a book by Bernhard Schlink) and, far more importantly, he couldn't reasonably cast himself in his own film.

Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, the hot Nazi love-mistress, and she is amazing. It's not like she's ever been bad in anything; in fact, she's usually excellent, but this role is so meaty that it raises her to another level. She has a Sean Penn-like ability to vanish into a character, and the complexity and depth of her performance almost saves this film from itself.

In the early sequences, opposite David Kross as Michael Berg, her 15-year-old boyfriend, she has a quintessentially Teutonic sternness to her. "You will read to me first; then we will make love," she tells him, which, I'm guessing, is standard German bedroom talk.

Kross is all dewy-eyed innocence and desire, and his goofy, bulbous features work perfectly. He's neither the chiseled image of teenage perfection nor the sunken-chested nerd you'd find in most American films, but he captures something about adolescence that's hard to convey: ignorance. He really seems like he doesn't quite know what's happening, and isn't sure whether he should admit it or not. But Winslet, too, as Hanna, has a strange sense of secrets kept. As if to hammer this point home, at one point, Berg is sitting in his literature class when the instructor says, "Secrecy is central to Western literature; all great characters have some secret." So, you know, just in case you were watching the film in utter ignorance of the most basic plot element, there you are.

When Hanna's secret is revealed, the film really hits its stride. She's on trial with a half-dozen other women, and they conspire against Hanna, naming her as the leader of the atrocities. I guess if you're going to claim that you were just following orders, it helps to point to someone who was giving them.

It's here that the film acquires its unsullied bit of depth. While the Nazi defendants turn on one of their own, Berg has to wrestle with the fact that he has information that would partially exonerate Hanna. But if he presents it, he'll be a social outcast for having helped a Nazi. Essentially, he's in a variant of the same large-scale Milgram experiment that Hanna found herself in during the war.

Neatly, no one acquits themselves with heroic integrity, and the film explores the ways in which shame, conformity and evil walk hand in hand like teenage Aryan lovers. Unfortunately, to get that across, Daldry makes use of a somewhat clumsy framing device: The film occurs in the memory of the grown-up Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is an acclaimed actor, but he's really a one-note player, all blank-faced mystery with very little meat.

The second-to-last sequence has him meeting with a survivor of the camp where Hanna worked, and it's a little disturbing, largely because the woman (played by Lena Olin) seems to have profited off the Holocaust (she wrote a best-selling book on it, and her upscale apartment is festooned with expensive artwork) and is portrayed as presumptuous and haughty. The characterization borders on anti-Semitism, though I think the story intends to show that no one, not even the most-victimized person, is morally pure. Still, making the Holocaust survivor into a wealthy and stereotypically judgmental jerk is an ethically and aesthetically questionable choice.

The final sequence, showing Berg attempting to connect with his adult daughter, is even worse, as it cheapens what went before, making the whole thing out to be just Berg's personal journey to self-awareness. By far, the more interesting character is Hanna Schmitz, and while it's effective as a dramatic technique to have her seen only through Berg's eyes, The Reader still shouldn't be Berg's story.

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