The Reader - Stephen Daldry – Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, in which a 15-year-old boy named Michael, falls in love and has affair with Hanna, an older woman. They meet in the 1950s and, unbeknownst to him, Hanna had in fact been a guard in Aushwitz. This dark revelation occurs when later, as a law student, Michael attends a trial in which Hanna is being prosecuted for war crimes. The first 40 minutes or so establishes their sexual relationship; Michael visits Hanna and, at her request, will often read to her, after which he is, perversely almost rewarded with sex. It is an exposing and naturalistic affair, Hanna’s illiteracy and Michael’s sexual inexperience rendering them both strangely vulnerable. There is a lot of nudity that, rather than ever feeling erotically charged or particularly sensual, appears instead a physical and uncompromising honesty, expressive of the unornamented, and at times, uncomfortable, intimacy. The latter half of the film revolves around the trial and the later, grown up Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes). He reflects on their relationship, while sending her tapes (as he has now realized she cant read) that recreate (via home recordings) his recitals of classic literature. The difficulty and tragedy arises when he hears the history of Hanna’s involvement in the holocaust, which twists the memory of their relationship into a far darker, queasy entanglement. In retrospect their intimacy becomes unnervingly redolent of her interaction with those in the camp. We are told she asked prisoners to read to her, often very close to when they had to be mechanically ‘dispatched’. The unsettling ambivalence of Hanna’s character derives from whether her unaffected and cold honesty is a symptom of her tragic simplicity, as perhaps indicated through illiteracy, or the evidence of her detached inhumanity.
This is where a review of the film becomes a sensitive and incredibly difficult task. There is no denying that Daldry’s film is competently polished; its visuals are controlled and the performances (particularly Kate Winslet) are brave and successful. However, like the inability to decipher Hanna’s understanding of the holocaust, it becomes similarly hard to ascertain the film’s position. On writing the novel, Schlink reflects:
‘I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.'
I feel this best elucidates the precarious and disturbing core to Michael – and the film’s – contemplation. Despite Hanna’s part in a monstrous slaughter, we have the memories of a relationship and of her naked but often inscrutable nature. Putting the metaphorical emphasis of her illiteracy aside (central to a parable of war guilt and repression – how to express/understand and represent the inexpressible; the ‘nothing’ that comes from the camps), we are left with the pain of a memory haunted by an absent and inexpressible horror. Michael’s passion, and indeed love, for Hanna, cannot be erased or forgotten – but equally, as the film progresses and her life continues, what are we to make of that memory? Was their affair a sinister repetition of her cold exploitation of the walking dead? Was she using stories and literature to escape, voiced in sick exploitation, from the mouths of those who had no escape? Or was their affair a connection that shouldn’t be divorced from his original memory, and in fact her disturbing role in the holocaust is a disturbing example of the individual lost and blinded in the magnitude of a historical trauma. Can anyone be expected to understand or communicate anything, given the scale of atrocity?
Also, through the framing of the courtroom and the discourse of legality we are invited to question, along with the other students, the gulf between a legitimate ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the ethical ‘good and ‘evil’. It is a situation in which the terms of legality are shown as incompatible with a satisfactory morality; ill equipped to approach the tension between individual and ideology, choice and orders, a crime od state and an atrocity of blame, the reality of free will, the reality of comprehending – the possibility of comprehending. As a holocaust survivor informs Michael: ‘If you want understanding or meaning go to literature or art, don’t go the camps, from the camps there is nothing’ (approximate quote). It is the inability to securely balance understanding and condemnation that makes this film so troubling…and inspired much conversation and sleep-depriving thought after watching.
Despite gaining awards, and the wide recognition of Winslett’s devastating performance, critics seem often polarized by this film. Peter Bradshaw provides a particularly vehement one star assassination of its worth, while Mark Kermode (pretty reductively) bring exploitation flicks into the question. Kermode recalls the pornographic tradition of The Night Porter and Salon Kitty. I would argue this to be a needlessly dismissive interpretation that, in a reflexive and conservative response to the sight of nipples and sexual content, allows this detail to eclipse the narrative’s complexity. The inclusion of sex and nudity in the film does not have to categorically infer an exploitation impulse, smothered in production value, expense and famous names. It is an inclusion that makes the film far closer to its uncomfortably real and troubling consideration, that of human passion, memory, and relationships. It is the horror that generations of the uninvolved, and memories ignorant of circumstance or apparently unrelated, cannot escape the infection of the holocaust. How are we to understand such deeply human experiences in light of such a jarringly inhumane atrocity?
Barring the unsatisfactory last shot, which seems to fall into unnecessary summarizing territory, I believe the film to be a powerful, strange and uncomfortable experience. I entirely understand the critical reaction that immediately suspects and condemns any film, so clearly furnished with money and corporative sheen, of its intentions. Alarm bells of exploitation, aestheticized tragedy and misrepresentative, manipulative cinematic calamity, are, of course, ringing with apprehension. But I feel it would be wrong to securely fall on either side of praise or damnation as the film, whether rightly or wrongly, does exude the same painful uncertainty that tortures its own narrative. 7/10