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12.24.08

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Phaedra

Melinda Sue Gordon/2008 The Weinstein Co.
SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION: Kate Winslet gives some life lessons to a young man in postwar Germany.

Book Club

The Reader' wants to believe that a good book can save anybody, even Nazis

By Richard von Busack


RESOLVED: Convicted Nazi war criminals should be allowed books on tape. Just such an imaginary debate is at the heart of all the should-he-or-shouldn't-he? in the dreary Oscar-season prestige entry The Reader. Director Stephen Daldry, whose The Hours turned on more intense feminist trauma, again slides back and forth in time. In a small city after World War II, a German lawyer, Michael (Ralph Fiennes), was once a puking schoolboy (David Kross), ill with scarlet fever. A curt streetcar conductor, Hannah (Kate Winslet), cleaned him up and sent him home. Months later, after he recovers, an affair begins. Winslet works that Dietrich toughness; with a gruff, soft German accent she calls the kid she's shtupping "kid." She never lets him under her skin, even though she lets him into her body. The affair is interspersed with bathing rituals; she sulks in her own bath or washes Michael like a groom washes a horse. After they make love, Hannah likes to be read to by him. One day, she vanishes, and he is left more or less unable to love for the rest of his life.

The crux of Michael's problem lies in his schooldays. Michael was taking a class on the law of the Holocaust, taught by a professor (Bruno Ganz) who was a victim of the Reich. On school assignment, Michael stumbles into a courtroom where Hannah is on trial. It turns out that Hitler signed her paychecks during the war. While Michael conceals himself in the courtroom, he watches as Hannah is accused of having passively stood by while concentration camp prisoners died.

The Reader is a combination of guilt-by-association grandstanding and lost-love maundering: I mean the kind of first love that keeps a person from ever functioning properly for the rest of his life, the kind of first love even devoted moviegoers don't really believe in anymore. The story has a point: some 60,000 people worked at Auschwitz, and only a handful ever served jail time for it. The legacy of guilt would take some unusual, unsuspected forms. But the film sets up the moral dilemma, as emphasized by screenwriter David Hare—what if you loved a Nazi?—and then makes sure that Michael is absolutely innocent. There's an essential cruelty to Bernhard Schlink's popular novel that disguises itself—as cruelty often will—as sensitivity. The exculpation Michael might have performed goes against the film's notion of penance, or the single aspect that made Oprah pounce on the novel: the long improvement of Hannah's mind with great books. How well this improvement goes we can guess; Michael may be sending her Chekhov, but she's got Irving Wallace in her jail cell.

Winslet's tough commonness in the early scenes is attractive. Such a practical older lover does a young man good, whether he knows it or not at the time. Then this young version of Hannah vanishes, and she is last seen in indifferently applied old-person makeup, chilled by the cooler until her lips are purple. The Reader insists that the Nazis were human beings and that reading might have reformed them. We're aware of the former. But reading in the abstract means little. In fact the Nazis were great, swooning readers, and Goebbels was a novelist.

Movie Times THE READER (R; 123 min.), directed by Stephen Daldry, written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, photographed by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges and starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet, opens Dec. 25.


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