Last night, Brooke and I were privileged to attend an invite-only showing of The Reader — a moving film about a German lad (fifteen years old to be exact) who has an ardent affair with an older woman whom he later learns was an SS concentration camp guard.
We watched the movie in the company of a good many VIPs, including the German Ambassador and author Bernhard Schlink, whose book formed the basis for the film.
Directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet, The Reader has been nominated for five Academy Awards, which is not necessarily an indicator of cinematic greatness. (The hopelessly mawkish Benjamin Button has received something like 20 nods.) Yet a full day after the viewing, I find myself surprisingly affected by the movie, scenes from which I recall in dreamlike flashes.
Winslet is amazing as the passionate yet insular Hannah Schmidtz. Nearly her equal is David Kross, the young actor who plays her consort Michael. (Ralph Fiennes fills the role of the adult Michael, to far lesser effect.) The love scenes between Winslet and Kross are both searing and tender (and there’s a lot of ’em!), but there’s a sense of dread and confusion that hangs over their every shared frame.
The Reader‘s impact is lessened by the convenient and predictably sentimental father-daughter relationship that defines the film’s finale. Still, I found the movie to be remarkably powerful, and not just because I’m a sucker for moral and ethical relativism (see Apt Pupil).
The post-film discussion with the author was insightful, particularly his description of the “entanglement of guilt” between those who ignored or enabled the Third Reich and the subsequent generation that had no choice but to form relationships with individuals who may have, for whatever reason, acted reprehensibly. We’re talking parents, teachers — and in the case of this book and flick — first loves.
Schlink spoke about how morality is really about how people regard the Other — those outside our circle who can be easily demonized and ultimately victimized. In the context of their social order, the Germans of WWII were exceedingly “moral” — it’s just that their the circle was dangerously small. And anyone who thinks this couldn’t happen today is clearly not paying attention.
The Reader is surprisingly sensual, softly heartbreaking, profoundly disturbing and mostly great. Hope it manages to snag an Oscar™ or two.