The Reader (2008)

DVD Cover (The Weinstein Company)
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Overall Rating 76%
Overall Rating
Ranked #654
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In 1995, a German man reminisces about a relationship he had as a teenager in 1958 with an older woman. He also remembers what happened subsequent to that, including her standing trial for war crimes committed during World War II, and the secret which denied her justice. --IMDb
Review by bluemeanie
Added: January 13, 2009
If you could call 2008 anything it might be "The Year of the Holocaust Film". We have had more films on that particular subject in 2008 than any other in recent memory. For example: "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", "Valkyrie", "Adam Resurrected", "Good", "Defiance" - and the film I about to critique, "The Reader". Phew. That's a lot of misery. And I know I will offend some people by saying this, but - enough. We get it. We understand how tragic and terrible the Holocaust was. We understand how lives were destroyed and how an entire population was wiped out. It is impossible not to feel terrible for it, but must we continue to be beaten over the head with film after film after film about the subject? The biggest problem is that none of these films are bringing anything new to the table. "Defiance" is the same old boring re-telling of one of those single personal stories from the Holocaust, trivialized for entertainment value. Now, I will admit that I gave some of these films favorable reviews, but now it feels like we are being submerged by these films, over and over again. At least "The Reader" dared to be different. The film isn't so much about the Holocaust, but rather the affect that the Holocaust has on one woman and the boy that loves her. It's about secrets coming back to find us out and decisions we make that change our lives forever.

The film is set in Germany after World War II, where young Michael Berg (David Kross) meets a beautiful woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). Hanna helps him out when he is ill and an interesting relationship begins. David is 15-years-old, but fascinated with Hanna. He comes around for visits and they eventually begin a romantic relationship. Despite the large age difference, the two seem to get along extraordinarily well, until Hanna panics and flees, leaving Michael to himself. Flash forward a few years and Michael is at the university studying law. His professor (Bruno Ganz) takes him to watch a trial, which just happens to be a group of women being accused of murdering 300 Jews during the Holocaust, acting as SS guards. When Michael hears that one of the women on trial is Hanna, he is thrown for a loop, unable to believe the woman he knew and loves could do something so monstrous. All the while, we flash forward to present day where an older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is still coming to terms with the situation, with Hanna and what she meant to his life. The film, as a whole, is about the relationship between Hanna and Michael, especially as to how it changes Michael's life for the good and for the bad. The film is entitled "The Reader" because their relationship initially begins with Michael coming to Hanna's every day and reading her a new book. Later, it continues as Michael starts recording books and sending them to Hanna in prison.

As I mentioned earlier, this film isn't about the Holocaust so much as it is about how the Holocaust affects Hanna and Michael. Hanna does not deny that she locked the doors and allowed 300 Jews to burn to death in a church. She doesn't deny and she really does make no excuses. Her response is, "What would you have done?" She saw her work as an SS guard as excuse enough to do such a thing. She was tasked with a particular item and she made sure it was carried out. As monstrous as that is, there is a troubling logic behind it that makes you more curious than enraged. Just the idea of the mindset of someone to think like that is engaging. What could cause someone to think that murder was acceptable, especially on such a large scale? That seems to be what a lot of the characters in the film are trying to figure out. The students and the professor are trying to understand what could drive these people to do what they did. It's the insatiable desire to know and to understand that drives them. But sometimes you have to accept that there is no rational explanation. There are leaders and there are followers. In this case, the followers did so blindly with no remorse for their actions and no second thoughts. They were taught to do their jobs and they did just that. And keep in mind that a lot of these people could have been killed if they didn't do what they were told. That is not attempting to justify anything, but there are circumstances that a lot of people don't take into consideration when laying blame on certain people. "The Reader" doesn't ever try and justify these actions, but it does attempt to paint them in different lights.

The performances are riveting, especially Kate Winslet's brilliant turn as Hanna. What she does with this role is incredible. When we first meet her, we don't quite know what to think. She seems loving enough, but she has this cold and calculated way about her. She seems to genuinely love Michael, but she has no problem reminding him that she could drop him any time she wanted. Later, we see Hanna as a monster - a cold and calculated monster who has no regrets for what she did - on the surface. What brings things into perspective is a secret that Hanna has been harboring - a secret that she thinks is even worse than these horrible acts she has committed. These days, it seems rather bizarre to think of something so small as such a terrible thing, but to Hanna it was embarrassing and could never be revealed. Winslet gives her second stellar performance of the year in this role and deserves accolades for it. David Kross is also exceptional as Michael, matching Winslet step for step and baring himself just like she does in a very open and very honest way. The both of them spend most of their time together nude and we never feel like they are being exploited or that they are being taken advantage of by the director. That's probably because the director is Stephen Daldry, the brilliant filmmaker responsible for "Billy Elliot" and "The Hours".

In a year with so many films about the Holocaust, it was nice to see one tackle the subject matter in a more intellectual way, a film that tries to get to the bottom of what caused the Holocaust rather than focus on the aftermath. If we can get to the bottom of what made those people do what they did, we might be better able to prevent it from happening again. "The Reader" dares to ask those questions and it dares to explore new territory with a subject matter that most thought could go no further cinematically. I watched with delight last night as Kate Winslet took home the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "The Reader" and genuinely hope the Academy Awards smile on her as well. It really is a remarkable role. Other suggestions would be David Hare for Best Adapted Screenplay and possibly Stephen Daldry for Best Director. I wouldn't say this was one of the best films of 2008, but it was very well done indeed. I can't think of any glaring problems with it, but it just didn't have the same impact on me, emotionally, as other films of the year did. Regardless, it's a fine achievement.

George Snow #1: George Snow - added 08/24/2009, 12:57 AM
I loved this movie. Kate Winslet is one of the sexiest women in movies today. More importantly one of the most versatile and talented. Kate rocks, even though she practically fell over herself chasing Mick Jagger. That was embarrassing.
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