This review is going to be full of spoilers; if you don't want to know, best look away now.
So, for the remaining reader: The Reader hinges on the power of writing, and the flexibility of the truth. It can make or break lives. Reading aloud draws two people into a decades-long relationship; the shame of illiteracy leads to a terrible crime and a life of penance; a Holocaust survivor's book puts six female ex-SS guards on trial.
Berlin, 1958. Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old tram conductor who falls for the 15-year-old Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes and David Kross, although I could have sworn that it was Connor from Neighbours). She especially enjoys him reading to her. Their affair ends with her sudden disappearance and his heartbreak.
Years later, while at law school, he is shocked to see her as a defendant on trial for a terrible crime: she and five others are accused of letting 300 Jewish women burn to death inside a church, rather than unlock the door. The group had been on a death march from Auschwitz. The case came to light because of a book written by a survivor (Alexandra Maria Lara and Lena Olin's Ilana Mather, whose mother also lived; they were the only two). The rest of the film shows the fallout of Hanna's subsequent life imprisonment.
The actors speak English with varying degrees of German accent. Director Stephen Daldry gives this reason:
And why, I ask, do all the characters speak English with a faint German accent. He looks, for a moment, hunted.
“What would you prefer? . . . The honest answer is, I cast David Kross [young Berg], who didn’t have great English, and he spoke with an accent. So everybody had to match David. It was easier for the English actors to match him, because the Germans had all learnt English in different ways.”
Wikipedia has this unsourced reason: "Schlink insisted the film be shot in English, rather than German, as it posed questions about living in a post-genocidal society that went beyond mid-century Germany." I prefer this second reason, about making the film into a more universal tale. The expedient reason that Daldry gives undoubtedly had a lot to do with the decision though. For those of us used to the subtitles of The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin! and The Counterfeiters, watching Winslet et al. play it German with a light accent is a little hard to get used to at first; all credit to her performance in particular, though, she convinces.
The Reader is only about the Holocaust at one remove or more: seen through the eyes of the next generation (young Michael), the law and the inhabitants of the new, divided Germany. It's also about uncovering secrets: Hanna's SS past, the collusion of ordinary Germans with the Nazis, Hanna and Michael's relationship, Hanna's illiteracy. Some critics have taken issue with the film's (and the book's) relationship to the Holocaust:
You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.
This section of Manohla Dargis' review showcases her contempt for the film, which underpins her entire piece. She sees yet another movie on the Holocaust as diluting its horror, with "artfully spilled tears" for an event that is "grows fainter with" each new film or book. However, there is nothing to make "the audience feel good" here. Yes, Hanna is illiterate and this lack has stunted her choices in life. Yes, she leads a narrow, empty life before Michael. Yes, she tells the truth where others do not. Dargis' problem is with the entire premise of the film, because we just don't need more art about the Holocaust. If you agree, you'll hate The Reader too. I disagree.
Hanna is still an incredibly unsympathetic character, despite being played by "our Kate". She expresses no remorse for her actions - admits them, yes, but unflinchingly. She tells one big lie in court, out of shame - but the shame is for her own illiteracy, not for the deaths of those 300 women. She leaves her money to the survivor of the church incident, the writer of the memoir that led to her imprisonment, even though Hanna must have known that it would be blood money to Ilana (Michael should have thought of this too, and not gone).
It trivialises the Holocaust. What is repellent is how Daldry uses Kate Winslet’s nubile body to create sympathy for a repellent character. Daldry avoided showing the horror of her crimes: instead we have Holocaust chic which is all about sex, not mass murder.
If the sex had been ugly to watch, the audience couldn't have coped. Romantic sex in films has to be pleasing to the eye, just as "plain" women in films have to be gorgeous[**], and "ugly" ones secretly gorgeous. It's uncomfortable enough watching that much sex with that many people around, so it had better look pretty, dammit.
Still, Finch's comment gets right to the heart of an attitude implicitly criticised in the film: when we speak of the Holocaust, there were only monsters involved and we must never humanise them or explore what made them. This approach just doesn't help. Surely Dargis and Finch don't want to deny shades of grey in a character, even one who did despicable things? If we don't try to comprehend, in some small way, we will repeat our mistakes, or so I believe the saying goes. Understanding is not the same as sympathising, and it's a completely human thing to want to know why. Hanna's story gives us some reasons, but can't fully answer the why. She's had a hard time in life, but she doesn't seem forgivable, at least not to me. The illiteracy is not a good enough reason, but it gives us a tiny insight into human weakness. That insight isn't an excuse for Hanna, though.
The sex scenes show us the kernel of Michael's life-long attachment to Hanna, and help us to understand his behaviour towards her over the next few decades. The no-holds-barred depiction of this relationship early on in the film makes the revelation of Hanna's past all the more sickening. Still, they were bound to provoke controversy, even if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare were just going by the book [scroll down to the comments].
So, a summary of the complexities of the film:
And David Hare's script effectively distils the book's prolix and often overstated moral wrangling, especially in a tautly provocative last-act speech from Lena Olin as a Holocaust survivor: "My advice is – go to the theatre if you want catharsis." Daldry's restrained, serious-minded film deserves credit for refusing us such easy catharsis.
Exactly. The Reader doesn't offer a straightforward message or an obvious ogre (although when Hanna's fellow-accused club together against her, they verge on panto-villainy, with a side of knitting-casually-in-court) or even a lovely sympathetic heroine. Ilana, the survivor, sharply asks the most necessary question of all, in response to hearing of Hanna's illiteracy and shame: "Is that an explanation? Or an excuse?" No. There is nothing as simple as that on offer. A lot of the criticism of this movie seems to be aimed at the act of even trying to look at why people complied with the Nazis. If you feel like that, stick with your instincts. If not, it's compelling, without pretending to have conclusive answers.
** "Books link readers directly to the interior lives of their heroines, but the camera needs the beauty out on the surface, where the audience can fall in love with it faster." Yes, Michelle Griffin! Yes!