Review: The Reader

Critics say this Holocaust film is too soft on Nazi guilt. It isn’t.


By Gerald Aaron, December 30, 2008
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Kate Winslet is superb as the older woman with a horrific secret who falls for teenager David Kross

Kate Winslet is superb as the older woman with a horrific secret who falls for teenager David Kross

How professional award-givers select their nominees is often difficult to fathom.

Kate Winslet, who gives a truly magnificent performance as thirtysomething German Hannah Schmitz in director Stephen Daldry’s powerful, provocative and mesmerising drama, has bizarrely been nominated by the Screen Actors’ Guild and for a Golden Globe as best supporting actress.

The banal reason for these ludicrous nominations is that Winslet has already received one Golden Globe best actress nomination and another SAG choice and is therefore barred from receiving another one. But, despite superb support from David Kross and Ralph Fiennes, The Reader would be very slight without her.

When Hannah finds 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) vomiting in the street in rainy post-Second World War Berlin, she rescues him and takes him back to his home.

Weeks later, after recovering from scarlet fever, Michael tracks down Hannah to thank her. Unexpected feelings rapidly lead to the couple embarking on a torrid affair during which the teenager discovers she loves to be read to. Then, without any warning, Hannah vanishes.

David Hare’s sensitive screenplay (his best), based on the controversial novel by Bernhard Schlink, unexpectedly reunites them eight years later when David, now a law student and observing Nazi war-crimes trials, sees Hannah again — this time as a defendant in the courtroom.

Some critics have argued that by attempting to explain how Hannah got into that position, The Reader is soft on Nazi guilt. The truth is that the film raises difficult questions about the Holocaust and the choices made by those who perpetrated it, and leaves it to the audience to assign blame and contempt.

The horrors of the mass extermination of Jews are painfully evoked but without overt reconstruction — a visit to a (genuine) former concentration camp is more than sufficient to chill to the bone.

Kross, at 18, vividly and convincingly conveys the inevitable psychological turmoil suffered by his 15-year-old character, as burning sexual attraction turns into real love. Fiennes is excellent, too, as the emotionally damaged, buttoned-up adult Michael.

For a brief while I found it rather disconcerting to hear everyone speaking English while the street and shop signs were all in German. But from the moment that Hannah and Michael first met, I never thought of Anglicisation again as I was drawn into unforgettable drama topped by Winslet’s superlative portrait of a woman out of her depth in love and, eventually, in her life as well.

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011