Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review:The Reader

What does it take Kate Winslet to finally win an Academy Award? - about a dozen nude scenes with an 18 year-old actor, a controversial role of a Nazi prison-guard responsible for the death of 300 Jewish women and yes, a fabulous performance. But I am not going to let Kate Winslet hog all the limelight in this post of mine 'cause well I am going to talk about The Reader.

Inspite of the mixed reviews this movie has been received with I'd give it a 3.9 out of 5 stars rating. Not bad huh?(as if it counts...on second thought it actually does). The first half of the movie, which has been a topic of immense controversy among critics does appear to be a tad disgusting. For it shows a juvenile Michael Berg indulging in an illicit affair with a 36-year old tram-conductress Hanna Schmitz.

One day on his way back from school Michael feels terribly sick and throws up on Hanna's door-step. Hanna, who is shown to be a cleanliness freak throughout the movie, helps Michael and escorts him back home where he is diagnosed with scarlet fever(according to the movie) and which in turn forces him to stay in bed for 3 months. After recovering from his illness Michael pays Hanna a visit to say thanks and one thing leads to another and finally they end up in bed in her apartment. Thus the two begin a forbidden relationship that would've been condemned by not only a conservative German society of the 50's but also by any society even in contemporary times. From a legal point of view Hanna would've also probably been accused of either child abuse or rape and even Hanna knew this, which explained her feelings of guilt. And she would often vent her frustration on Michael for obvious reasons. But to teenager Michael - it was love and he was NOT guilty of it. Every day after school he would make a mad dash for Hanna's house to make love to her and read to her - the one thing Hanna asked of him. He would read out pages from books like The Lady With The Little Dog, Homer's The Odyssey and even comic-books like Tintin and Hanna would listen to him, mesmerized and enthralled. And Michael was more than happy to make Hanna happy.

As Michael says this to himself -
I'm not frightened....I'm not frightened of anything.The more I suffer...the more I love. Danger...will only increase my love...or sharpen it or give it spice.

And personally I feel that these few lines capture the essence of The Reader. It is a love story after all - a very unconventional one at that. But a love-story nonetheless. This is the kind of love which always inevitably ends in disaster.

Moving on with the plot, Hanna suddenly gets a promotion at work which for some unknown reason terrifies her and Michael feels himself getting attracted to his class-mate and tries to resist. Finally one day Hanna packs her bags and disappears from Michael's life for good. And Michael's world collapses like a crumbling house of cards. He is forced to return to his normal life and his family whom he seems to have deserted when he was with Hanna.

8 years go by and Michael is now at law school. But Hanna and her memories still torment him. And one fine day Michael is taken to a Nazi war-crime trial where he finds himself face to face with Hanna who seems to have been a Nazi concentration camp guard charged with the murder of 300 Jewish women along with 5 other female guards. And all the demons of his past come rushing back to Michael once again.

A guilty Hanna confesses to all her crimes of locking the 300 women inside the church and not letting them escape when it was set on fire though all the other defendants deny it. In addition they even accuse Hanna of planning the entire thing and drafting a report on the church fire all by herself.(The hags were lying of course to save their own skins from capital punishment.) In such a situation the presiding judge asks Hanna to produce a sample of her handwriting so that they could compare it with the writing in the report. After a moment of hesitation she says 'There's no need. I wrote the report.' And it is at that very moment that Michael realizes why Hanna always asked him to read to her, why she never ordered food from the menu when they were eating out. It was because she couldn't read nor write. She was illiterate. And this was a secret she wanted to carry with her to the grave.
It was a secret more shameful to her even than her Nazi past. And to protect it she had to face a punishment of imprisonment for life.

Years fly by again and Michael has become a successful lawyer with a grown-up daughter and an unsuccessful marriage. Hanna is still at prison, now a very old woman. Michael often thinks of her and his past. And he does something to make her prison life a little better - he reads out pages from his old books recording them into the tapes and sending them to Hanna. And she finds joy in listening to Michael's voice and the stories just like she used to do in the past.

The most poignant scene from the movie would be when Hanna borrows a book ( The Lady With The Little Dog) from the prison library, recognizes the word 'the' from the tape and circles it each time it appears on the first page, thereby learning her very first word 'the' in the process. It made me tear up so badly - the way Hanna's fingers trembled while she held the pencil in her hand, the excited look on her face upon learning her first word. I could've given Winslet an Oscar just for that one scene. Anyway in this way she learns to read and write - with help from Michael's tapes.
She begins writing to Michael asking him to read from specific books and to visit her. Michael however doesn't reply to any of them but keeps sending the tapes. Finally the day arrives when Hanna would be released from prison and Michael is asked to take her home by a prison official as he is her only contact. A reluctant Michael complies. But by the time he arrives at the prison she had already committed suicide. A grieving Michael finds that she has left some money in her tea tin for Ilana, a survivor from the Nazi concentration-camps, and instructions for Michael to deliver it to her. And Michael honors her last wish by going to the U.S. to hand Ilana the money. She refuses to take it but accepts the empty tea tin. Michael decides to donate the money to an organization which promotes literacy among adults.

The movie ends with Michael taking his daughter to visit Hanna's grave and starting to tell her about his relationship with her - something he has never told anyone before.

I don't know how others might react to The Reader - to the scenes where both Kate and the young actor David Kross are shown stark naked or to their illicit affair. But I know one thing - that at the end I don't feel those scenes matter at all since the sheer brilliance of the rest of the movie overshadows them. Hanna and Michael didn't only lust for each other. It was love that they felt for each other.
The Reader has portrayed how Michael never got over Hanna.When he fell in love with her, he fell in love forever. How Hanna felt about Michael wasn't very clear. But a few of the scenes told me that the feeling might have been mutual. Another thing I liked about the movie is how it never tries either to glorify or villify a Nazi. The Nazis committed heinous crimes no doubt under the orders of a tyrant. But they may not have been entirely devoid of emotions or principles. They were human beings too. Hanna Schmitz could throw away her life in exchange for protecting the secret that she was illiterate. And she did not lie even once during the trial. This tells us something about her morals. Although by pointing this out I don't support her actions as a concentration camp guard. What she did remains unpardonable as Ilana pointed out to Michael.

As far as performance goes Kate Winslet and David Kross(the young Michael) have fared excellently. Especially Kross deserves more than a pat on the back since he did such a major movie with a veteran like Kate Winslet at the tender age of 18. Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael doesn't have as many scenes as Kross. Yet he plays his part with aplomb. There's a perpetually pained look on his face that will make you understand how profoundly a brief affair with a much older woman had left him damaged for life.

To conclude I'd like to remember The Reader as a love-story that could never have a happy ending, the story of Hanna Schmitz who finally added meaning to her life by teaching herself to read and write and the story of Michael Berg and his unfulfilled love.

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Dylan said...

I saw the movie.. my views are pretty much same as yours.. though I wish they would've taken somebody more.. er.. Good Looking.. :D (Jessica Alba anyone?)

Oh! And the film has Fiennes! VOLDERMORT!!! :D

Atindriyo said...

Hmm, got to watch...
But Ralp Fiennes has set high standards for such a role after The English Patient. Does he live up to the expectation?

Nightwing said...

i felt that angelina jolie did a better job in changeling..also kate winslet gave a fantastic performance in revolutionary road..but academy awards are a i am not gonna comment about the oscars...

Samadrita said...

@Dylan:I don't think Jessica Alba would be able to do a performance-oriented role.These kind of roles belong to people like Winslet or Cruz or Kidman. :)

@Atindriyo:Ralph Fieness doesn'tshare as much screen space as the other 2 actors.But he does well!Watch the movie and Im sure you'll agree.

@Anish:I haven't watched Changeling so far so can't say.But Kate Winslet sure did an excellent job as Hanna Schimtz!She has been doing some outstanding work for the last few years.

Sayon said...

Ya, nice movie

but i had expected a better ending...

I would atleast like to see the reaction of the Micheal's daughter hearing the story !!

Srinivas said...

i already a bit of sure about ending,

what holds the movies is Kate's performance, its just awesome, for me beyond admiration,

in case of story, Lust lost its meaning in front of Love, the turbulence in which main protagonists lives are portrayed is just admirable.

as people say LOVE lurks in hellish places of hell

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