Like the novel by Bernhard Schlink, Stephen Daldry's The Reader is not so much a Holocaust film or even a World War II film, but a metaphorical exploration of the seduction of Germany's youth by the Nazi generation, and an actual exploration of the aftermath and consequences of the Holocaust and the War on the post-War society and generations in West Germany.
It tells the story of a steamy affair between a young boy, Michael (David Kross), and a former Nazi guard at Auschwitz, Hanna (Kate Winslet). Ralph Fiennes plays Michael as an older man still dealing with the echoes and ramifications of his sexual awakening and the later discovery of Hanna's wartime activities.
Michael meets Hanna, a ticket collector on a streetcar, when he becomes ill on his way home from school. She brusquely washes away the vomit he leaves near the threshold of her building, then invites him up to recover a bit in her apartment. After he recovers from what turns out to be scarlet fever, which takes awhile, he brings Hanna flowers and a sexual and intellectual relationship develops. Michael seems to admire Hanna's strength and competence. She is enthralled by his youth and innocence and takes advantage of his growing interest to get him to read to her, from books and plays he is reading in school.
Michael begins to leave his school friends behind more and more as he spends time with Hanna. She stays slightly aloof throughout, though they take an idyllic cycling trip whose events and locations echo later in the story. Hanna finally leaves the relationship by disappearing. Michael only discovers the break-up when he arrives to find her apartment empty with no other explanation or communication.
Later, as a law student, his Jewish professor, Rohl (the perfectly cast Bruno Ganz, who memorably portrayed Hitler in Downfall, and angels and others in several wonderful Wim Wenders films), brings Michael's class to observe the trial of several female concentration camp guards at Auschwitz whose crimes have been brought to light by the memoir of a young Jewish girl who survived a brutal death march near the end of the War. One of the guards, of course, is Hanna. Michael discovers crucial information that might have lessened her sentence had he revealed it to the tribunal, but he stays silent, perhaps because of the way Hanna ended things, or because Hanna is resigned to take the brunt of the punishment, or because she probably deserves any punishment she gets, or all of these reasons and more, too intermixed and ambivalent to pinpoint.
The earlier story is intercut with scenes of Fiennes as the older Michael as he leads a cold, slightly detached life as an attorney in West Germany. He seems at a remove from everything and everyone he interacts with, including his lovers, ex-wife and daughter. We see him recording and sending cassette tapes to Hanna in prison, books he read to her during their time together.
Not much more of the story can be revealed without spoilers, so that's enough of that. It's not much of a secret, though it is important to the story and not a cheap trick like the one in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, another fictional Holocaust movie from this year. You'll learn it reading almost anything about the film, but I'll keep it back here for now. Though we know it is fictional, The Reader rings true and earns its complexity.
Overall, this is an excellent, worthwhile film, the best World War II- and Holocaust-related film of the year, better than Pajamas, Valkyrie (which suffers from Cruise's casting) or the well-intentioned and exciting Defiance.
Kate Winslet's makeup early on gives her a very distinct, almost mannish, tough look despite her obvious beauty, and lends an air of determination and stubbornness to the younger Hanna. As she ages in the segments in which Fiennes plays Michael, the makeup becomes less effective, but her performance doesn't suffer much from it, and in the main it was probably the right choice. Winslet, Kross, Fiennes, Ganz and Lena Olin as the grown-up young survivor of Hanna's death march, and, earlier in the story, her mother, are all perfectly cast and spot-on, really interesting and powerful performers in an intense and weighty film.
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