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The Reader, set in post-WWII Germany, follows teenager Michael Berg as he engages in a passionate but secretive affair with an older woman named Hanna (Winslet). Eight years after Hanna's disappearance, Michael is stunned to discover her again as she stands on trial for Nazi war crimes. The Reader is a haunting story about truth and reconciliation and how one generation comes to terms with the crimes of another.
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The movie is provocative for both the many nude/sex scenes between Michael and Hanna, and because it purposefully makes it a bit harder to blame or label, not only those responsible for the Holocaust, but all of the people in our history who have a connection between an evil deed and tacit complicity, regardless of the severity. There is a powerful moment during the trial when a confused Hanna is questioned about her responsibilities as a guard and she innocently asks one of the judges, "What would you do?" None of the judges has an answer. Throughout all of history's atrocities, there are always those who were simply "doing their job." It's so easy to imagine being the heroic person who would stand up a make a difference, but the fact is, few possess that much courage and conviction.
Many recoil at the sexual perversity, but I think the intention was to make the audience uncomfortable. Not only did Hanna's seduction help create a person who would end up sharing her emotional void, but so too did the generation responsible for the Nazi atrocities force their shame onto the generation that followed them. The beauty of The Reader for me was in how these characters can speak for generations; the passion, the heartbreak, the guilt, the shame, the anger, and the eventual cold-blooded detachment.
The acting is stellar throughout, with special props going to Kate Winslet and David Kross for their fearless portrayals and for breathing such believability into their characters. To engender empathy for people who run the gamut from despicable to emotionally empty is a nod to their acting skill. To compel me to watch the drama of such unsavory individuals is a testament to the power of this movie. The Reader might disturb you, anger you, disgust you, or even confuse you. Certainly one of the principal responsibilities for art is to provoke such reactions.
P.S. I don't usually include info about the dvd extras, but since I watched them this afternoon, I thought I'd add a sentence or five. There are about a handful or so, focusing on the set design with a German woman who had left her native country during the post WWII period to get away from the drama, a lengthy bit with Kate Winslet getting into her older make-up, an interview with Kross and the director, and a bit with the music director. There are also quite a few deleted scenes that must've made it pretty far as they seem like a finished product, if you know what I mean. They are illuminating and at least one in particular should've been included as it not only bridges two scenes that have little continuity, but also features a very poignant conversation between Michael and an older truck driver. It's kind of chilling and should have been in the movie.
As to the story line, I guess "Pride goeth before a fall" would be a good subtitle for the movie. I felt that Hanna's reasons for admitting guilt were stupid, when one little admission might have made all the difference. Without posting a spoiler here, who in their right mind would give up everything for that? I didn't feel the story gave us a reason for her admittance, none that was plausible anyway. I only gave the movie 4 stars because I hate walking away, thinking, that part was really stupid.
A great work is always very much greater than the sum of its parts. I can't compose an interpretation or an analysis of The Reader. The first viewing is stunning; a second viewing is more stunning, is much more than stunning. Well, any movie not worth seeing twice isn't worth seeing at all. (Too many movies are highly praised only because they don't outright suck.)
The Reader includes mysteries from the outset; it includes subplots; it dwells on the themes of innocence and experience; it depends on fractured and displaced chronology; it shows exuberant passion and apparent indifference. All that perhaps so we can avoid the drift into despair.
Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader is unsurpassed in all of movie history. Even with the artifices of movie-making, the many takes, the editing, the post-production work, the bounties of craft and technique, it's still up to Winslet to play the part. In truth, her work in this movie is ineffable, it expresses "a grace beyond the reach of art".
A more recent and equally profound and complex movie comes to mind, but as counterpoint to The Reader: the Polish film Ida. See them both to see how you feel.