Best Picture Part 1: The Reader

Part One of a Five part series on the Best Picture Nominees.

I didn't like The Reader. I was impatient for it to be over when I saw it, I cared little for any of the characters, as a result I looked for little to love in any of the aesthetic presentation. In a somewhat stunning difference of opinion here on Kinematoscope, Dave listed The Reader as the number two film of the year and gave it nine hypothetical Oscar Nominations, while I listed it nowhere and gave it none.  (In the spirit of this, Dave will be writing a rebuttal to this post.)

I will say this- I'm probably short-changing the work of many technicians and film professionals for their superb work in putting The Reader together because I have inherent problems with the storytelling. But that's the way it is- you get biased, it's hard to shake. But why did I dislike it in the first place?

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For starters, I hated it before I saw it. First, the Weinsteins created a fuss by rushing it to theaters, telegraphing their intention to Oscar-bait to the world and angering producer Scott Rudin- they also, by way of the Dimension branch of the company, delayed the release of The Road, a film I couldn't be more excited to see, to focus on promoting just the one. 

And then, nearly every preseason indicator seemed to imply that The Dark Knight, my favorite film of 2008, was a lock for a Best Picture nomination, while The Reader hardly got any awards notice. But The Reader appeared in place of The Dark Knight, breaking up a group of five seemingly unstoppable films, making a direct comparison between the merits of the two films inevitable.

As Dave said, I should be equally incensed by The Dark Knight also being passed over for a bowl of cinematic oatmeal in Frost/Nixon, but the damage was done.

Now, with The Reader being nonsensically buzzed about as a potential spoiler to the Slumdog Millionaire juggernaut (don't kid yourself, Entertainment Weekly), I'm trying to reconcile the acclaim with the queasy feeling it gives me in my stomach.

Here's my question: who is/are "the reader" that the title refers to? (Lots of spoilers from here on, by the way). The central character of the film is allegedly a character named Michael, who reads to Hannah Schmitz as a teen and later as an adult, by cassette tape.

But The Academy has roundly rejected the attempt by the studio to market Kate Winslet's Hannah as a secondary character- she is nominated for and likely to win leading actress. Is she "the reader"? Her character eventually overcomes illiteracy while in prison, and learns to read.

Then I found out that the German title of the Bernhard Schlink novel on which the film is based is "Der Vorleser." This translates to "The One Who Reads Aloud." ALOUD! The Reader is not supposed to be about Hannah- Michael reads aloud to her, and it is his complex desire to both understand her and condemn her, which he finds to be impossible, that makes the heart of the story.

The novel is narrated by Michael in the first person, inherently limiting the perspective to his character. By contrast, The Reader the film revels in Winslet at every opportunity- her naked flesh, closeups of her face during the trial (Michael can mostly see the back of her head), and pained looks of conflict on her face at her job, where Michael is not present at all. It elevates her presence to a flesh and blood character, which is why I both agree with the acclaim for Winslet's performance but am starting to understand why I find the film revolting. Bear with me.

This is a holocaust film. And not a traditional one- it's set in post WWII Germany, and it attempts to grapple with the younger generation of Germans facing the impossibility of coming to grips with the atrocities committed by the older generation. The novel does this by having Hannah appear as a frustrating enigma, a relic of the Holocaust- she shows no remorse, but deep shame at being illiterate. She claims to not think about the past, but in the end commits suicide and wills her meager savings to survivors of the Holocaust.

That's fine for a secondary character in a novel that we see only in the recollection of another. It's downright ludicrous for a character brought to life by the best actress of her generation.

For example- in the novel, Michael abruptly says "Next morning, Hannah was dead." The enigma vanishes as abruptly as she appeared. In The Reader, we get to SEE Hannah preparing to hang herself. Writing the letter. Piling books on the table. We are being told by the eye of the camera that witnessing this is important, that we should care about this in a profound way. The score swells.

And that's where The Reader loses me. Hannah as a character I find ludicrous- she objectively weighs illiteracy and the primary responsibility for the burning death of 300 people, and decides that illiteracy is worse. I suppose that's a value judgment, but I really don't need to spend another hour and a half with any person or character that makes that decision.

And that would be fine, if I were following Michael around watching him debate going to see Hannah in prison, but deciding against it. No, we get to see Hannah anxiously looking up, wondering who her mysterious visitor is. But Michael turns around- we see her realize no one is coming. Poor Hannah... wait, why should we care, The Reader? Who is this movie about?

It's what has plenty of historians troubled as well, about both the novel and the film. In both stories Hannah signed up for the SS because she was offered a promotion at another job where her illiteracy would be made clear. But she would have known, people argue, exactly what she was signing on for. That's where the accusations of revisionist history come from- The Reader seems like it's absolving the wider part of Germany for knowing what was going on, portraying them as a high minded rabble that roundly condemned the atrocities as soon as they found out, after the Holocaust was over.

To sum up by asking random rhetorical questions: Is portraying a character as human portraying them sympathetically? Is the eye of the camera inherently the eye of the story? Is it cheap and emotionally manipulative to trade on the narrative weight of the Holocaust without showing it? In the same way, is it manipulative to show us the vulnerable naked flesh, shameful illiteracy, and suicide of a Nazi war criminal without showing us her crimes?

I'm sure a lot of people differ from my responses to the above questions, clearly very greatly. But I think there's a big difference between "raising complex moral questions without easy answers" and having nothing to actually say. Der Vorleser, the novel, I think had plenty to say. But The Reader translated the title wrong, and lost the message in the Oscar campaign.

But to be fair, without the nomination it's doubtful I would've seen it, and without its upsetting inclusion over other films I cared about, it's doubtful I could find the energy to be so critical.

1 Response to "Best Picture Part 1: The Reader"

  1. I had to turn it off. Partly because I was bored watching her and Michael having sex. Partly because my dad announced that it should have been called "Nakey Bedtime Stories". In any event, I feel pleased that I wasted no more than 20 minutes on this schlock.

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