Saturday, January 10, 2009


Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Kate Winslet

Michael Berg: What’s your name?
Hanna Schmitz: What? Why do you want to know?

We don’t know. We think we do but we don’t. We make decisions or sometimes decisions are made for us but we think we’ve made them. Then suddenly, there we are. We can’t be certain how we got there or where we will be when everything settles but we do know that we are alive. Some experiences are life altering and we can run from them or embrace them. Staying to see them through though can bring incredible bliss but also tormented turmoil. We just never know. One such experience was had by a young Michael Berg (David Kross) and is chronicled in Stephen Daldry’s THE READER. How could he know that when he pulled into an alley to be sick that he would meet the woman who would shape his entire life? How could he know that getting close to her would pull him the furthest he’s ever been from himself?

Of course, when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy and a woman who looks like Kate Winslet disrobes in front of you in the privacy of her bathroom, how much thought really goes into the decision that has presented itself? However little it is, it is certainly less than is warranted. This is especially true in West Germany of 1958. This is a Germany that is uncertain how to proceed, how to be its new self in the eyes of the world and the eyes of its very own future generations. Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a compassionate woman but also abrasive and stern. Winslet strikes the perfect balance between directness and desire in Schmitz, making her complexities part of her appeal. She is a good fifteen years older than the young Berg and she knows much better than he of her country’s history. What he knows, he has read in books, been taught in school. What she knows, she lived first hand. So when the two come together, naked in each other's arms, the meeting is as redemptive as it is passionate. Berg is just happy to be in love and having sex but Schmitz is washing herself clean with the youthful vigor of Germany’s tomorrow.

The summer ends and so does the affair, as one would expect. Just when it would seem that the two would never meet again, life steps in to ensure that past decisions, perhaps made in haste, can come to see their consequences. Berg has grown some and is a college man, studying to be a lawyer, when he catches sight of Hanna Schmitz again. Their latest chance encounter is far less exciting though as he sees her on a class outing to a courthouse. Schmitz is on trial for crimes against humanity for her time as an officer in the Nazi party during the Second World War. Berg’s memory of his first love would now become a question of his own morality. How could he love someone who was now accused of such atrocities? How could he be so intimate with someone he apparently never truly knew? And yet, now that he knows her past, does he really know how her past came to be? After all, what is the face of evil? Is it Hanna Schmitz or is it something incredibly bigger than her?

Ralph Fiennes is the future of Germany. He plays Berg as an adult. His life is orderly, very clean, crisp and cold. He made decisions that made him the man he is and he can never say whether they were the right ones or not. What he can see is that we all make decisions that either hurt or harm other people and that the atrocities committed by his past generations are not as far outside the realm of understanding as he might have originally thought. More importantly, redemption is not that far either.


Charles Lyons said...

Hey Joseph!

Sorry I haven't talked to you in a bit, I've been securing a job at InReview Online and talking to its editor, Sam Mac, a lot about structure and review criteria and such. I hope you'll continue to recommend and read my blog (which will still be published regularly) and converse with me. Your blog is still a definite fav of mine.

My first review on INro will be The Reader and will be published next in two weeks. So look for that.


Anil Usumezbas said...

I am looking forward to this one now, unfortunately I still couldn't find a theater near me which plays it.

As for your review, it's not really clear to me why the film lost some points in your eyes. What were the flaws that made you give it a B+?

Just asking out of curiosity; as I've said, I haven't seen the film yet

Black Sheep said...

Hay Anil. It's not that there are major flaws. There is some sense that the structure is driven by the novel and not the screenplay. It is not terribly surprising. Still, this hardly takes away from the whole. The grade is primarily just personal response to the film. Definitely worth seeing. Winslet is phenomenal.

Steven said...

The Reader, The Wrestler and Flight 1549...
If the universe is fractal, a family comprised of unique parts yet each related, then patterns can be found where none were directly intended. It's the nature of things.

How is that Marconi, Tesla, Popov, Lodge, Fessenden, Hertz, Dolbear, Loomis, Stubblefield and Maxwell all conceived of the radio and invented its necessary parts, separately and apart from each other at the same time? But it was Marconi who nailed it - he owns the radio - Tesla went on to other things, but Stubblefield? - Lost except to Google and 3 radio historians in a library somewhere.

In the movie, The Wrestler, Randy -The Ram - Robinson and his junto of wrestler/performers put on a show, an American show - staged, pure fakery - the ritual is more powerful than the reality.

In the movie, The Reader, Hannah Schmidt, is tried for the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners trapped in a burning church. The Defendants and Judges sit on stage - we know there is a deeper explanation than the evidence will admit but the Court will render its verdict - its ritual of punishment meted.

Two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, flight 1549 is steered to safety by an unlikely hero, a rather standard issue guy who saves 155 lives just as Obama, an unlikely President, starts his attempt to steer the country to an economic soft landing in hopes of saving countless livelihoods. Sully, the pilot, is a seemingly reluctant hero, no interviews, no show, no ticker tape parade - just did his job and turns a respectful but cold shoulder to the limelight of the 24/7 cable TV spectacle. By nature more Stubblefield than Marconi, our pilot is more than brave - he is decent.

The Reader and The Wrestler - one refined and utterly sad, the other gritty and utterly sad. Two very different films but each bound by connective ligature to the pyramidal (and maybe particularly modern American) kernel of human isolation - that core inside all of us that our flight 1549 pilot seems to have (amazingly) excised from his DNA: the it's-the-outside-that-matters-not-the-inside gene; a/k/a longing for adoration; a/k/a pride - amour propre.

Hannah Schmidt (in the Reader), the former SS guard stands accused of murder and she is illiterate. Robin "Randy The Ram" Robinson, (in the Wrestler) the former wrestling headliner, stands all blond haired, steroid pumped, heart failed image and he is emotionally illiterate.

Hannah Schmidt has a "kid" (she calls her young lover - who reads to her before they make love - "kid") and Ram has a kid, a grown up daughter whom he has not seen in years. Hannah's kid, her lover, reads to her and teaches her heart-love and in return she teaches him fuck-love (he seems the better pupil than she) - but in the end - it's not enough. Ram's kid, his lost daughter, teaches Ram forgiveness - but in the end - it's not enough.

Hannah's pride, her refusal to admit her illiteracy, leads to her confinement without kid. The Wrestler's pride in his past glory and refusal to kick his addiction to the known commodity - impersonal fame (no matter how small time) for the unknown cold turkey love of one single woman -- who says to him all anyone can ask or give: "I'm here, aren't I?" - leads to his emotional imprisonment (without his kid too). She goes to jail. He remains confined in the isolation of the roar of the crowd. For both its a life sentence.

In the end, Hannah, still behind bars in her jail cell, climbs up a stack of shaky but carefully balanced books and from on high hangs herself. In the end, the Wrestler, behind the ropes in his jail cell of a wrestling ring, shakily climbs up the corner post, carefully balanced, and from on high throws himself down to the canvass for his last jump.

Two movies as related in their sadness and regret as Marconi and Stubblefield were in their invention. We shall see how Sully fares when the talk shows come calling. Its the nature of things.