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The Reader (2008)

A movie directed by Stephen Daldry

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VERY well acted and written. Not sure what to think of its message, though.

  • Dec 29, 2009
  • by
Warning: this review contains a significant spoiler. If you really have no idea what the movie is about, and don't want to know...read no further. I don't discuss anything beyond what you find in virtually any review about the film...but be warned nonetheless.

THE READER is fabulously well-acted, and thus it is a gripping drama. When it's all said-and-done, though...I was left perplexed as to how to react. I didn't have mixed feelings about it...I literally wasn't sure how I felt.

That may be both a huge accomplishment and a failing. THE READER essentially conspires to make us sympathize (to one extent or another) with a Nazi war-criminal. In a way, the film may be doing this to help illustrate how easy it is to turn away or ignore horrible things going on. To give some sense of how so many Germans could have turned a blind eye at the atrocities of the SS during World War II. Yet by the same token, the film cheats in evoking these feelings because we are introduced to the main character years after the war, and are led to see her in a sympathetic manner...feelings that stick with us throughout the film.

Kate Winslet plays Hanna, a 30 something woman working as a conductor on a streetcar in post-war Germany. She lives a quiet life in a tiny apartment, making a very small ripple in the world. One day, she shows a little kindness to 15 year-old Michael, and when he returns to Hanna's apartment to thank her some weeks later, the two fall into a deep, passionate and highly inappropriate affair. Hanna clings to Michael for some kind of comfort, yet she is also quite demanding on him. She will give him virtually anything he can imagine sexually, yet she holds up a very solid wall against his efforts to build a truly intimate relationship. He is, understandably, madly in love with this amazing older woman who is teaching him things his friends can only imagine. And he also reads to Hanna (at her insistence): short stories, novels like HUCKLEBERRY FINN, etc.

One day, Hanna just disappears and Michael is left bereft. Years later (I won't explain the circumstances), Michael finds that Hanna is on trial for war crimes...apparently she was a guard who led a fair share of women to the death chambers and also left a large group of women and children to die in a church fire. There is no question she was involved...but to what extent? Did she have a valid reason? And does Michael know something about Hanna that could help her? And if he DOES...should he use it, or should he let Hanna "suffer" a large punishment?

This dilemma is at the crux of what the film is about. It explores guilt and it also explores the idea of a "shared" guilt. I know the book upon which THE READER is based was written by a German, so I believe both works also are working at understanding the national guilt Germany feels, or the world thinks it should feel. And it was this exploration that left me perplexed. Am I supposed to sympathize with Hanna? If I were in Michael's shoes, would I want to help her or hurt her or ignore her?

And in this story, Michael is also deeply affected by the sense of loss and betrayal Hanna's sudden disappearance left him with. He has become a person who is closed-off from his feelings and reluctant to open himself to others. Frankly, he's become an unlikeable, uptight jerk.

How the relationship between Hanna and Michael grows and changes and concludes is the through-line of this movie. It is certainly and interesting and compelling drama.

And the three stars of the film make it very, very watchable. Kate Winslet, who can do virtually no wrong, gives one of her best performances. Her character is frequently unlikeable (even before we know about her past)...yet we can certainly see why a 15 year old would be hopelessly smitten by this damaged person. And although her old-age makeup isn't always the best, Winslet develops her character convincingly over several decades. The young Michael is played by David Kross, a very talented young man who very convincingly portrays the reserve of a child of a wealthy family, as well as the enthusiasm for sex that only teens can have, along with a very touching effort to try to understand Hanna and make her happy. Older Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes, who once again shows how many different ways a closed-off, repressed person can be played. It's another type-casting for Fiennes, but as always, he pulls it off as no other modern actor can.

So while I found THE READER a perplexing puzzle at times, I still greatly enjoyed the film. It is crisply directed, and the cinematography makes the German countryside sparkle. It is not flashy, but it is still softly powerful and disquieting in how much it can make us care for these far from perfect people.

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More The Reader reviews
Quick Tip by . July 18, 2010
The film that finally gave Kate Winslet her Oscar. Loved the story line and Kate Winslet definitely deserved it...
Quick Tip by . July 16, 2010
A great and understated movie. Kate Winslet was exceptional.
review by . September 22, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
The Reader was quite a surprise in 2008.  It's success is surprising because not only did it suddenly drop down from what seemed like no where, but it went on to become that "Little Oscar Movie That Could" (and couldn't).  Every year there's always one of those kinds of films out there.  In 2008 it was The Reader.  And while The Reader isn't really a bad film--there are even parts that are absorbing as hell--I can't help but admit that there were some moments when it …
Quick Tip by . June 07, 2010
A little weird, but deep.
review by . May 20, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: David Kross is kind of cute      Cons: Every--last--thing      The Bottom Line: Sitting in a cafe window watching no one walk by for 2 hours is a better way to spend that time. VERY VERY DULL.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. I’ve sat through another award winning, relatively obscure drama that I found extremely boring (I just finished reviewing the boredom of The Hurt Locker). …
review by . February 21, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
THE READER in the form of Bernard Schlink's masterful book made an emotional impact on those who read it. And for once the book to film version holds nearly as much agony and beauty as the original. The screenplay is by David Hare (whose transformation of 'The Hours' was so worthy) and it captures not only the dialogue of Schlink's novel but fills in the silences with well-constructed added commentary. Stephen Daldry ('The Hours', 'Billy Elliot') directs with great sensitivity to not only the narrative …
review by . February 16, 2009
  The Reader is by far the deepest film I have seen all year, maybe even ever and it was truly splendid to watch despite its subject matter. There was great acting on both Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes' parts. There is no doubting why this film is up for Best Picture in this years Academy Awards.    I am really appreciating the fact that so far, the films that are being nominated for best picture this year on not epic films, but just wonderful stories. Both The Reader …
review by . June 14, 2009
The difference between Art and mere Entertainment, is Art causes us to think and feel -- sometimes thoughts and feelings that are not exactly enjoyable. If I have ever seen a movie that is Art, it is "The Reader."    When I undertook my undergraduate studies, I decided to focus on 20th Century European History because I wanted to understand how and why the Holocaust happened. I even had opportunities over the years to talk to a few survivors of the camps and to talk with Germans …
review by . April 16, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
THE READER in the form of Bernard Schlink's masterful book made an emotional impact on those who read it. And for once the book to film version holds nearly as much agony and beauty as the original. The screenplay is by David Hare (whose transformation of 'The Hours' was so worthy) and it captures not only the dialogue of Schlink's novel but fills in the silences with well-constructed added commentary. Stephen Daldry ('The Hours', 'Billy Elliot') directs with great sensitivity to not only the narrative …
review by . April 14, 2009
For most of us our first love is something that always sticks with us, but in the case of Michael Berg (David Kross) his first love had a more lasting impression then most of us would want. At the age of fifteen he entered an affair with 36 year old Hana Schmitz (Kate Winslet in an Oscar-nominated role). The affair only lasted a summer, but it was wonderful to him. The two would have sex and then he would read to her. This was a daily pattern until one day Hana just disappeared. Years later during …
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I've got my own site, www.afilmcritic.com, on which I'm posting my reviews. I am 46 years old, married 25 years, two kids (23 & 18) and currently work in accounting/finance. I spent 15 years … more
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About this movie


Though THE READER may boast the typical pedigree of a Holocaust film--acclaimed actors, a literary source, and an Oscar-baiting end-of-the-year release date--this drama has a significant difference: it focuses on a perpetrator, rather than the victims. Kate Winslet takes on the hefty supporting role of Hanna Schmitz, a woman who has an affair with Michael Berg (German actor David Kross), a 15-year-old boy in 1950s Germany. They spend their brief romance alternately making love and focusing on literature, with Michael reading everything from Chekov to Homer to his lover. Soon, Hanna abruptly disappears, and Michael returns to his normal life. Almost a decade later, Michael is studying law, when he sees Hanna again; she is on trial for her crimes as an S.S. guard during the war. Michael is torn between a desire for justice and his knowledge of a secret that may save Hanna. <br> <br> THE READER makes full use of hindsight and historical perspective. Based on the bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink, the s...

What is the nature of guilt--and how can the human spirit survive when confronted with deep and horrifying truths?The Reader, a hushed and haunting meditation on these knotty questions, is sorrowful and shocking, yet leavened by a deep love story that is its heart. In postwar Germany, young schoolboy Michael (German actor David Cross) meets and begins a tender romance with the older, mysterious Hanna (Kate Winslet, whose performance is a revelation). The two ...
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Director: Stephen Daldry
Genre: Drama
Release Date: January 9, 2009
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: David Hare
DVD Release Date: April 14, 2009
Runtime: 123 minutes
Studio: The Weinstein Company
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