Like Doubt, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader is low-budget, high-profile, and beamed straight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Category of High Moral Tone. Only in this case, the stakes are way higher and the attitude muted to a fault. Based on a partly autobiographical novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader examines German culpability for the Holocaust through the story of a love affair between a 15-year-old boy and a woman more than twice his age, who later turns out to have been a tiny cog in the wheel of the Third Reich. In 1995, when the book was first published, the rave reviews for its courage in going there at all were followed by angry letters to the editor accusing Schlink of making a victim out of a former concentration-camp guard. Humanizing someone isn’t the same as apologizing for them—the horror of Hitler was precisely that he was human, which implicates us all—but having read the book twice, I can’t make up my mind on that one. Which is rather the point, for Schlink’s subject is the bewilderment and moral uncertainty of a German generation whose parents maintained a stubborn silence about what they knew and did—or didn’t know and didn’t do—in the war. The Reader is a book about the appalling cost of keeping quiet about genocide and about the possibility of recovering, understanding, and forgiving the past.
Mimicking the novel’s back-and-forth structure, the movie puts its head down and plods grimly through the memories of emotionally constipated law professor Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes, for whom the role might have been written) of his summer-long postwar affair with tight-lipped tram conductress Hanna (Kate Winslet), to whom, significantly, he reads Chekhov and Tolstoy in between bouts of carnal abandon. Young Michael is played by the very good young German actor David Kross, looking chuffed as the Cheshire Cat for the opportunity to begin his career in bed with a buck-naked Winslet, whose effortless blend of wounded fragility and tempered steel provides The Reader whatever momentum it can rustle up.
After vanishing from Michael’s life one day without warning, Hanna reappears years later, middle-aged and defiant as she stands trial for her crimes, then old and baggy and defeated—yet still unremorseful—as she waits to get out of prison. Hanna has a secret that, once revealed, will either evoke your pity or cause you to shrug along with a survivor of her past crimes and say, “So what?” As a literary device, her cover-up is a little clumsy, yet it’s of enormous consequence in how we judge her, the former lover whose life she may have destroyed and vice versa, and indeed all of Germany. Where Schlink leaves that up to us, Daldry and screenwriter David Hare sew it all up with a moment of fatally damp redemption.
Schlink writes with a studied lack of sensationalism, in terse prose that heightens the drama on the page, but also makes the story extremely difficult to film. Sidestepping the usual Auschwitz-camp footage and unfolding mostly in a dingy bedroom and a provincial courthouse, The Reader strives to honor Schlink’s restraint and his struggle to avoid cliché. But like many narrative filmmakers who walk on their tippy-toes when dealing with the Holocaust, neither Daldry nor Hare seems eager to make the material his own. Add to their timidity a pack of production troubles—including a distracted director who was simultaneously working on the Broadway version of Billy Elliot, two feral executives (Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin) scrapping publicly over the release date, and the death of two beloved producers (Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack) during production—and it’s not hard to see why the movie version came out such a flat, respectful pudding. There’s more life, energy, and imagination in the thrilling final seconds of Daldry’s feather-light movie Billy Elliot, when a grown-up Billy limbers up in his Swan Lake costume in the wings of an English theater, than in the long, lifelessly worthy road taken by The Reader.