The Reader (the Weinstein Co.) is slow-acting poison. For the first third of the movie, you’ll experience a not-unpleasant tingling in the extremities, giving way to an encroaching torpor. An hour in, your pupils will have shrunk to pinholes, and by the time the closing credits roll, you’ll be capable only of a dim longing for the defibrillation paddles. Who would have thought a movie about a beautiful, frequently naked female Nazi could be so dull?
If anyone could pull off the feat of making nude Nazis boring, it would be Stephen Daldry, whose The Hours (2002) was a genteel, portentous literary adaptation of exactly this sort. The Reader is based on a German best-seller by Bernhard Schlink, a former Oprah selection that is, by all accounts, a harrowing look into Germany’s troubled postwar conscience. The movie is something else: a titillating romance that suddenly morphs into a suspense-free courtroom drama, then trickles off in a wan coda of hand-wringing.
Middle-aged law professor Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is a lonely shell of a man, incapable of real connection; as we first meet him, he’s politely dismissing a one-night stand. Glancing at a passing streetcar, he’s reminded of a certain summer long ago. Unfortunately, instead of hearing the theme from Summer of ‘42, we then flash back to 1958, when the teenage Michael (played by the gawky, endearing David Kross) had a furtive love affair with the much older Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a ticket-taker on the Berlin trolley.
Hanna is an odd sort of girlfriend, fiercely sexual but briskly unromantic, given to sudden bouts of cruelty and sorrow. The sheltered, middle-class Michael is thoroughly entranced by this passionate enigma. He cuts school to spend days at her apartment, reading the classics aloud to her in bed. (These early scenes, in which literature and lust converge, are the movie’s best.) Then, one day, he finds Hanna’s apartment empty.
Years later Michael, still waiting to turn into Ralph Fiennes, enters law school. His professor (Bruno Ganz) takes the class to observe a war-crimes trial in which a group of former SS guards are accused of letting Jewish prisoners burn to death in a locked church. The principal defendant: Hanna Schmitz. Devastated, Michael returns to his class, Adolescent Grandstanding 101, to debate the morality of trying war criminals 20 years after the fact. Was Hanna, as she insists, a terrified subordinate carrying out orders, or was she a sadistic ringleader enjoying her power?
Maybe I’m lacking in moral complexity (or maybe this is a uniquely German story that translates poorly to an American context), but The Reader’s central problem (which seems reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”) strikes me as a bogus one. If Michael can say, truthfully, that he knew nothing about his lover’s past, doesn’t that effectively absolve him of guilt? A lifetime of Fiennes-ian brooding seems a steep price to pay for one summer of unwitting fascistic congress. And even if Michael can’t help but feel haunted by his fling, shouldn’t others (like the Holocaust survivor he confronts near the end of the film, played by Lena Olin) let him off the hook? Why on earth should a horny teenage boy have to abstain from sex with a willing blond goddess on the off chance she might be SS?
For Kate Winslet is indeed a goddess, one whose special power is to descend among us in manifold human forms. Even in this hopelessly silly role—half dominatrix, half victim, devoid of legible motivation—she finds moments of truth. (On a bike excursion with Michael, you can see Hanna trying, and failing, to rediscover her carefree prewar self.) Yes, Kate is grubbing for an Oscar this year with the near-simultaneous release of two Important Dramas (this and Revolutionary Road). But she may be the finest actress of her generation, and (unlike her only real competitor, the other Cate) she’s also a five-time nominee who’s never won. I say give her the gold guy already, Academy, if it means so much to her. Maybe it will free her up to stop acting in movies like this.
Slate V: Critics on The Reader, Doubt, and The Day the Earth Stood Still