Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Every year, five (soon to be ten) movies are nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and I always think I should try to see them. The problem is that so many of them look really unappealing. These nominees tend to be more than just art films (I LIKE art films.); they are Big Subject movies, and they tend to be preachy. These movies are about Race, Greed, Evil Republicans, or America’s Obsession with Violence. Then there’s the recurring favorite topic: The Holocaust. How many more movies about the Holocaust are we going to be subjected to? Well, I can’t believe I’m doing it, but I am here to recommend that you watch one more.

The Best Picture nominees for 2008 were “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “The Reader.” I watched and liked the first two, and I’d be up for watching the second two on the list. As for “The Reader,” I had zero interest in watching, and I just got sucked into it because I truly had nothing better to do. It turns out the movie is way, way better than I expected!

“The Reader” tells the story of a young man, Michael (played young by David Kross and older by Ralph Fiennes), who, at the age of 15, has an affair with an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet.) They have some hot times, but Hanna has something of a wall around her, and seems to carry a deep sadness and loneliness. The two manage to make something of an emotional connection, however, and in a moment of playfulness, Hanna gets Michael to read one of his books to her. Soon they are working their way through Michael’s library, Hanna listening rapt as he reads the classics to her.

When Hanna abruptly vanishes from his life, Michael is, of course, devastated. A few years later, as a law student, Michael re-discovers Hanna when she is brought to trial for, of all things, having been a Nazi concentration camp guard. Michael’s handling of the situation as a young man and years later, when he forces himself to re-visit the issue, makes an amazing and heartbreaking story.

The reason I was able to get into yet another Holocaust movie is that “The Reader” is only peripherally about The Holocaust. It is really about the thorny issue of how modern Germany deals with the guilt of the Nazi era. As the last of those who lived through that time die off, this will become less and less of an issue, but for recent history it must have been quite an elephant in the room for Germans. Meanwhile, knowing this history doesn’t seem to stop people in the rest of the world from repeating it. It seems that 20, 30, or 40 years down the line we are always going to be dealing with this thorny question of how to pass modern-day judgments on past crimes.

Caught smack in the midst of this question is Hanna. “The Reader” does not excuse Hanna for her crimes, but it carefully raises the question of how much of her trial is just scapegoating. If almost all Germans knew something of what went on in the camps, and if most kept silent, and many approved, then how much of that guilt belongs to any one camp guard? This film doesn’t answer the question any more than I could, but it does a good job making us aware that the question exists.

None of this necessarily sounds like good entertainment, but somehow “The Reader” kept me on the edge of my seat. Hanna’s situation and Michael’s journey as he reaches out to her are somehow transfixing. This is the kind of movie that people tell you you should see, and you know what? You really should see it!

4.5 stars

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