(Weinstein) Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Vijessna Ferkic, Moritz Grove, Volker Bruch, Karoline Herfurth, Max Mauff, Burghart Klaubner, Jeanette Hain. Directed by Stephen Daldry.
“Pride goes before the fall” as the saying goes and it’s one of those truisms that is actually true. We will endure many humiliations and trials before we will allow our pride to get damaged, and sometimes that pride will get in the way of even the most basic survival instincts.
German barrister Michael Berg (Fiennes) is a successful man but a distant one who lives alone, divorced from his wife, and while not completely estranged from his college-aged daughter Brigitte (Hain), is not particularly close to her. In fact, he is truly close to nobody.
As a teenager (Kross), he gets ill coming home from school on the tram in postwar Germany. Hannah Schmitz (Winslet), a tram conductor who lives in the building where the sick and confused Berg ends up, cleans him up and makes sure he gets home all right.
After convalescing at home, the young man returns to the apartment of the conductor to express his gratitude, but soon finds himself attracted to the older woman who is at first amused by his obvious infatuation but after awhile is attracted to the awkward but sincere admirations, which soon leads to intimacy.
As the summer deepens, their passion grows exponentially, with Michael rushing to her apartment every day from the resort-like summer school/camp he and his friends are enrolled in. The attentions of a pretty teenaged girl named Sophie (Ferkic) aren’t even enough to swerve his attentions from Hannah, who soon grows fond of having Michael read aloud to her from various classics; Homer’s Odyssey, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Chekov’s The Woman With the Little Dog.
While it is clear that Hannah isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, she also seems haunted by something else, a terrible secret that she is keeping. Her behavior begins to grow erratic after a bicycle tour through the German countryside. Soon afterwards, even though she is being promoted at her place of employment, she flees as if being pursued by demons straight from the pits of Hell. In a way, she is. Nevertheless, Michael is devastated by her sudden departure.
Some years later when he is studying law at university, he is enrolled in a special seminar with but a few students studying under a revered professor (Ganz). They will be attending and observing a trial of Nazi prison guards, which will lead to the revelation of a secret from Hannah’s past that can be the undoing of her life. Only Michael knows the truth of her situation and is given the opportunity to save her, but in doing so he will strip away all her pride and perhaps destroy her completely.
By now it’s no secret that Winslet won an Oscar for her role as Hannah Schmitz, and you can certainly make a compelling case for her. Whether her performance was better than Meryl Streep’s in Doubt or Angelina Jolie’s in Changeling is a matter of opinion; for my money, she richly deserved the statue. Winslet’s performance is nuanced and layered. Her Hannah is a deeply flawed woman who is used to being obeyed, and yet often displays timid characteristics as well. Markedly sensuous, her relationship with the teenager, which would be statutory rape in this country, is displayed here starkly and without needless sentiment.
The larger problem I have with the film is that while this is Kate Winslet’s film, it is not Hannah Schultz’s story. While Fiennes is magnificent as usual, he has begun to develop a reputation of being a fine set-up man for great performances by his partners. Fine as Fiennes is, Kross is onscreen much more of the time and is quite frankly, less interesting. He is not nearly equal to the task of measuring up to Winslet’s performance and she winds up dominating the film to the point that we are drawn to her and therefore away from the main crux of the story.
However, if there are curses for any film to have, that’s not necessarily a bad one. The movie has is otherwise very well-made, recreating postwar Germany nicely. We get to see a country still suffering for the crimes of the Nazi regime; eager to make amends but just as eager to put those days behind it, divided in two by the triumphant superpowers and left to reacquire its own moral compass. At times, I found that more compelling than the inner struggle going on for Michael Berg as well as for Hannah Schmitz.
I have to say I was left curiously flat for a film that was so acclaimed. I can see the reasons The Reader is celebrated, and agree with most of them. However, the flaws were enough that I’m not giving it the kind of rating you’d associate with a film so honored during awards season. Hmmm…maybe pride really does go before the fall.
WHY RENT THIS: Kate Winslet won an Oscar – and deservedly so – for her performance. The depiction of postwar Germany is compelling, presenting a snapshot of a place and time not often glimpsed on film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: David Kross not as strong or compelling a performer as Winslet, drawing attention away from the story where it was meant to be. The emotional detachment of the Michael Berg character makes it harder to identify with him, either as a teen or an adult.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very explicit sex sequences, rough language in places and certainly a great deal of adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella both passed away before the movie was completed. Due to the extraordinary circumstances, the Academy allowed more than three producers names’ to be read as nominees during the broadcast of the 2009 Academy Awards show.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray disc contains several features that look at the difficulties of filming a movie in which the Holocaust is so central a theme in Germany, and how German cast and crew members felt about it.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Black Book