I suppose everyone’s fairly cynical about Holocaust films at this point. The most literary-minded people will cite Theodor Adorno’s famous quote that poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarism. Other’s will cite Kate Winslet’s famous observation in Extras that Holocaust movies all have Oscars coming out their asses. What’s kind of frustrating about The Reader is that it is such an intelligent and fresh take on the Holocaust told with a filmic style that screams Oscar-bait.
The film follows Michael Berg (played by David Kross), a teenager who finds himself having a passionate affair with an older woman called Hanna Schmitz. She disappears from his life and when she reappears, Michael is a law student attending a war crimes trial and Hanna is being tried for her role in the deaths of 300 Jewish women. This is a film that tackles difficult questions of morality and guilt. Quite predictably, people are up in arms about this, accusing the film of making Nazis sympathetic. This is not particularly accurate. The film certainly condemns Hanna for the decisions she has made but it also confronts the audience with the uncomfortable truth that Hanna is a human being who loves and feels. This is the flipside of the banality of evil. It may be easy to demonise those complicit in the murder of Jews. But a man who loves a guilty woman has to face much more complex emotions, as does a generation of young Germans who live in the shadow of their country’s history.
The Reader plays some neat tricks with the audience. There is a Rocky-ish montage in the film that really pulls you in to root for Hanna only to be followed up with a scene that completely deflates the goodwill earned from the audience. A visit to a Holocaust survivor late in the film completely subverts your expectations then dances around the edges of political correctness while being utterly compelling. Make no mistake, this is a smart film. It’s also a Holocaust film that is honestly about the Holocaust unlike say Life is Beautiful, a film that appropriated Holocaust imagery for some bullshit fairytale about how art saved the Jews from the Nazis or whatever.
So what makes The Reader so Oscar-baitey?
- The soundtrack: The orchestral score for The Reader is particularly offensive in its monotony and its need to convince you that you are seeing a Serious Movie, often drowning out the nuances in the screenplay and the actor’s performances.
- The tone: The Reader is directed with a sombre mood for most of its running time even though there was space to explore other colours: There is implicit humour in the fact that Michael is just a horny teenager at the start of the film and the rowdy antics of Michael’s uni mates are toned down so as not to detract from the Serious Oscar Contender vibe.
- Ralph Fiennes: Ralph Fiennes is good in the role of Michael as a middle-aged man but being such a big star is distracting when his role is so small. I feel that having Ralph Fiennes playing Old Michael may have influenced some bad editing decisions. In a film that juggles so many different time periods, the end result is rather inelegant and I feel that it’s the Ralph Fiennes scenes which should have been first on the cutting floor.
- Kate Winslet’s makeup: Kate Winslet is amazing in her role as Hanna but her makeup as an old woman is fairly unconvincing. I spent some of the later scenes thinking more about the quality of the makeup than the story and it was so distracting that the filmmakers should have really just cast Helen Mirren.
- German accents.
Still it’s strange to criticise a good movie for overselling its quality. The Reader is like a beautiful woman who wears too much makeup. At least it’s not a Nicole Richie.
SEE THIS FILM WITH:
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
German guilt double feature!