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The transformation of Bernhard Schlink's somewhat affectless novel into Stephen Daldry's deeply expressive film is not the most interesting thing about The Reader, but I look forward to studying it when the DVD comes out — and I find time to re-read the book. David Hare's script pastes strips of the original's straightforward narrative in an order of rising tension that climaxes, elegantly and quietly, in a very surprising location, one whose truth to the book almost atones for the dreadful interpolation of an irrelevant intermezzo set at a factory of extermination. (The proposition that David Kross could grow up to become Ralph Fiennes is the film's only other awkwardness, but we are so used to paying that sort of ransom to the bad taste of Hollywood moguls that we negotiate it easily enough.)
Considering that The Reader is a set of variations on the theme of shame, it is astonishingly engaging. I can think of only one moment of cinematic complicity, in which I was forced to reflect on my own experience, and while shame was an element of that moment, it was hardly the primary note. I speak of the look on the young Michael Berg's face (he is played by Mr Kross) when, sitting at the dinner table with his family a few hours after his deflowering, he "reflects" on the startling transformation of his life. That's to say that he trembles between the concealed delight of his new memories and the helpless belief that his lack of virginity must be obvious to everyone else at the table. Intercut with images of his sexual initiation, the scene is one of the most delicious in cinema: transcendently comic and mortally humane. If you want to call that "shame," go right ahead.
That is about it for comedy in The Reader — and a good thing, too. Some viewers may find its gravity enervating, but I was grateful that the serious tone rule out the bruises of Spielbergian manipulation. If the novelist insists that his readers form their own judgments about what his characters have done (and have had done to them), the filmmakers have been tactful about their own conclusions, and nothing could be more remote from the movie's climate than the idea of representation. These people are not stand-ins for moral positions. The seamless joining of nimble script and eloquent performances presents us with men and women of the utmost particularity.
The visual hallmark of The Reader is Kate Winslet's head. The movie treats it like a sculpture on exhibit not far from Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo. The antiquity of her coiffure and the wildness of her defensive grimaces render Ms Winslet's Hanna Schmitz a figure out of Germany's long and dangerous infatuation with ancient Greece. On one or two occasions, Hanna might be called flirtatious, but she is never, ever humorous. It is clear that her life must have begun in circumstances too exiguous for joking around. More significantly, it has made her too hungry not to exploit the beneficiaries of her kindness. For Hanna, "good" and "bad" are altogether situational.
I spoke of shame: it rumbles just below every turn of the story. There is the shame, up front, of Michael's age-inappropriate relationship with Hanna, shamelessly instigated by her. (That it would seem to be every adolescent boy's dream come true is what I mean by the film's mortal humaneness). There is Hanna's shame, which has nothing to do with the crimes for which she is prosecuted. As an SS guard who stood by while prisoners who survived a death march perished in flames, locked in a bombed church, she is content to judge that she was only doing her duty; but she is so ashamed of her inability to read that she takes the bulk of a collective guilt upon herself lest it be revealed. There is Michael's shame, as he hears her testimony, about having been intimate with such a monster; but even greater is his shame at being unable to help her. There is the shame of the law professor (Bruno Ganz) who did not kill himself when he grasped the evil of the Third Reich, and there is the shame of the survivor of the Reich's dehumanization.
But this is not a film about waking up to shame. No one "suddenly understands," for example, how awful the Holocaust was. The Reader stands for the denial of that very possibility: it holds that there was nothing to learn. This is articulated at the climax, set, against all probability, in the sophisticated Park Avenue salon of a survivor, Ilana Mather (Lena Olin). Visited by the grown Michael (Mr Fiennes), Ilana insists that "nothing came out of the camps." This would include the postponed recognition of wrongdoing. (It also ought to have warned the filmmakers against young Michael's impossible promenade in the museum that has been fashioned from the remnants of Auschwitz — the bins of shoes, the showers, the ovens, the simply lighted boardwalks from station to station — a scene that very nearly dishonors those who went to their deaths there.) That may be why The Reader looks at shame with such sympathy. Hanna's shame at being unable to read turns out to be what led her to the SS; how different her life would have been if she had been able to acknowledge her illiteracy and learn to read.
And having learned to read, in prison, Hanna loses that shame. Prisoner though she may be, she finally joins the society at whose edges she has lurked so furtively. This is her undoing, for when the grown Michael makes preparation for her life after release, she confronts him not as a hunted being desperately seeking an escape but as an equal, as, finally, a lover; and his withholding of affection devastates her. Perhaps she grasps that she took his affection too soon, when she was not equipped to make the most of it. There would be no shame in that. (January 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press