Best Picture Part 1.5: Dave's Take on The Reader

Ironic that I am about to defend a movie which contains a trial.

I am a huge fan of The Reader. I saw it multiple times. I purchased the soundtrack. I read the book – though that was before the movie came out. I think it deserves any accolades it receives, I feel that it should have received more Academy Award nominations, and I feel that it will be rewarded on Oscar Night. I thought so well of it, I placed it in the two spot on my top ten of the year.

However, The Reader has been met with much criticism and tends to divide people into “love it” or “hate it” categories. While it is understandable that people will not have the same reaction to a film, has a film in recent memory been so polarizing? Why do people take great issue with the film?


One issue that I discussed is the ambiguity that exists in the film and how it makes Germans seem less culpable for their crimes during World War II. Ron Rosenbaum and Rob Lurie saw that film is a “revisionist” (Rosenbaum, 2009) account of Germany during and post-World War II. Rosenbaum critiques Hanna as being overly “sympathetic” (Rosenbaum, 2009) and chastises Daldry’s depiction of nudity in the film.

Rosenbaum goes on to call The Reader “the worst Holocaust film ever made” (Rosenbaum, 2009). His concern about a New York Times article depicting Hanna as someone who overcomes a disability is not without merit because of a poorly constructed page layout by the Times.

I found Rosenbaum’s treatment of The Reader to be overly harsh. He does not like the film, which is fine with me. I wholly understand that every film is not going to be enjoyed by all. I understand that Mr. Rosenbaum read the film much differently than I did. However, what I find hurtful and negligent on his behalf is the use of hyperbole – he called The Boys in the Striped Pajamas “the worst Holocaust film ever made” earlier this year and he called Life Is Beautiful “disgusting” upon its release ten years ago – and the fact that he does not mention countering viewpoints in his article. That is his editorial decision, but I find the argument poorly constructed because he also proclaims that Hanna’s character would not be able to exist because SS Propaganda was distributed through Der StĪ‹rmer, making it impossible for Hanna to be illiterate (Rosenbaum, 2009). His argument is undermined by Rob Lurie who acknowledges that there might have been circumstances allowing for a few Hannas to be illiterate and function in the SS (Lurie, 2009).

A few days after Rosenbaum’s article, Rob Lurie wrote an article for The Huffington Post where he takes issue with The Reader. Lurie’s article works much better because he engages opposing viewpoints and makes some concessions. Lurie acknowledges the film as “well made” (Lurie, 2009) and finds Winslet and Kross’ performances “nuanced” and “well developed” (Lurie, 2009).

Lurie’s concern was that film would give “ammunition to Holocaust nay-sayers” (Lurie, 2009) and the omission of the “postwar awareness” (Lurie, 2009) affects the outcome of the film.

While I disagree with Lurie’s initial concern about The Reader becoming a flag-bearer for Holocaust doubters, I find his concern about the film’s omission of Hanna reading Holocaust Literature – as her character does in the novel – compelling.

I find the omission acceptable. The film is attempting to get away from the novel in some respects for thematic purposes. Perhaps it was best summarized by Erica Abeel of IndieWire. In an interview with Stephen Daldry regarding the film, she states: “Rather than viewing it as inferior or equal to its source material, it deserves to be viewed simply as a freestanding creation: provocative and likely to divide viewers, affecting, and exquisitely filmed in hues that capture the quality of memory.” (Abeel, 2009) This statement coincides with the concept that Daldry, David Hare, and Bernard Schlink were going for. Schlink said that, “voiceovers are a cop out” (Abeel, 2009) and worked extensively with Daldry in Hare in creating the film.

Though there was a disagreement, the omission of Hanna reading the works of Primo Levi and other Holocaust survivors (more on this later), Schlink is happy with the end product and has been on tour promoting the film. If the author of the book is content with the changing of the message – which took persuading from Daldry and Hare based on the notion that the viewer will arrive in the same location of the reader of his book – then why is the audience allowed to take issue with it? The author ultimately gave his blessing, allowing for the omission of Holocaust literature because the book and film are not actually Holocaust works.

Schlink himself has said the novel is about “German guilt” (Rotten Tomatoes, 2009) and Brad Brevet eloquently explains that “The Reader is not a Holocaust movie” (Brevet, 2009). The film is about moral dilemmas that must be resolved between people and within people.

The film is about two people who cannot identify with who they are, come to terms with who they are, and are adversely affected by it. Hanna’s illiteracy is not solely lacking the ability to read. Abeel and Brevet stated in their articles that her illiteracy is compounded by her inability to express herself and that she is “emotionally illiterate” (Abeel, 2009) as well. This internal confusion and fear that resides within Hanna is superbly drawn out by Winslet’s haunting performance.

However, Winslet is not the only character with issues. Michael lacks the maturity in the first two acts of the film and the emotional capacity in the last act to define himself. Early on in the film, Michael loves Hanna after merely three weeks. Yet, that love is actually reciprocated by Hanna, and not just through sexual means. Michael gives a teary speech where he says, “I can’t live without you. The thought of you leaving kills me. Do you love me?” It was not until the second time that I noticed it, but Hanna nods. Again, she is crippled by her inability to come to terms with her emotions, yet Michael’s are so manic because of his lack of worldly experience.

The middle act shows Hanna again being unable to cope with the internal conflict that resides inside of her. She cannot face having the world know she is illiterate. While Rosenbaum was quick to equivocate, “She would rather go to prison for murdering 300 people than admitting she cannot read” (Rosenbaum, 2009). Brevet points out that Rosenbaum’s article is “filled with such snarky, passivity, and deep seeded hatred” (Brevet, 2009) that he is not watching the film and attempting to judge it on its merits. The message the film conveys is not as blunt or trivial as Rosenbaum would have the reader believe, but about “German guilt” (Rotten Tomatoes, 2009) as Daldry, Hare, and Schlink have stated.

To summarize it, The Reader is truly not meant to be viewed as a Holocaust film. If someone views it as such, the film will fail her or him.

Roger Ebert pondered,

“Is The Reader a Holocaust movie? No. In terms of its two central characters, it is a movie about lacking the courage to speak when we should. That’s something I think we all can identify with.” (Ebert, 2009)

Mr. Ebert, who I have a tumultuous relationship/understanding with, put it simply what the movie is meant to be about.

I think the movie is technologically sound and well-crafted. The cinematography, art direction, and costumes are top notch. I felt Nico Muhly’s score was egregiously overlooked during the nomination process because it is the most beautiful score of 2008. I feel that Daldry’s direction is purposeful, method, and has achieves a grand level of success. More over, I feel that Winslet’s performance was nothing short of stellar.

Claudia Puig of USAToday wrote in her review of The Reader that “a tale of eroticism, secrecy, and guilt is bound to stir discussion” (Puig, 2009). The filmmakers have achieved this by the praise and criticism the film has received.

My concern is that people are too often looking for the superficial when it comes to a film because they want to escape. Like Lena Olin says in The Reader “if you seek catharsis, go to the theatre.” However, most people want to be entertained. I will admit The Reader will not have the same thrills as The Dark Knight. It will not have the feel good story that Slumdog Millionaire has. The Reader offers an exploration into human emotion: how we connect, disconnect, lie, do not do the right thing, feel guilty, and feel remorseless. Sometimes that can be more profound than anything else, the identification with another on film because that may be how we feel too.

I am not trying to equivocate all this in direct comparison with the Holocaust because, again, The Reader is not about the Holocaust. I am not trivializing the “greatest trauma of the 20th century” (Spiegelman, 1998) by making it seem simple. I speak about the content of a book and film and how the two central characters in it can be made people that an audience can identify with.

In the end, The Reader does leave the viewer with a lot of questions, but they are the types of questions that have a great affect on the viewer.

3 Response to "Best Picture Part 1.5: Dave's Take on The Reader"

  1. I still say if you want a story to be "not about the Holocaust" then don't have a Nazi criminal as the protagonist of the story.

    Novel= about Michael. Movie= about Hannah (and Michael). Therefore, by the transitive property: Novel= about the postwar generation of Germans dealing with the H-caust fallout. Movie= about the H-caust (and the postwar generation of Germans dealing with the H-caust fallout). Still have to read the novel to confirm my theory...

    Also, it just seems like a douche-move when Weinstein trots Elie Wiesel around at dinners and screenings like a show pony.

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