Saturday, December 27, 2008

"We do it to understand . . ."

Taglines are supposed to be eye-catching, informative little blurbs that give you just enough information that ties in with the poster's image to hopefully incite some enthusiasm for the film being advertised. Yesterday, after seeing The Reader, my sister and I were looking at the poster outside the theater. The tagline sucked. It reads: "How far would you go to protect a secret? Unlock the mystery." From reading this, you'd think that the film is a suspense thriller or something like that. It gives no real sense about the poignant, thought-provoking story that unfolds in The Reader, Stephen Daldry's new film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

The Reader is about the lifelong effect of a summer relationship between Michael, a 15 year old boy, and Hanna, a woman over 20 years his senior. He goes to visit her because he, not surprisingly, becomes infatuated and falls in love with her. I'm guessing the sex had more than a little bit to do with that . . . Her reasons for initiating and maintaining the relationship are less clear. Like Daldry's last film, The Hours, the film takes place in more than one time frame. Later, Michael learns that Hanna was a member of the S.S. during World War II. I wouldn't dream of telling you any more than that, so I'll just leave it there.

The performances are uniformly strong. Kate Winslet does a fine job and will probably merit some consideration for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Of particular note are the two actors who portray Michael, the main character. David Kross and Ralph Fiennes do an excellent job of maintaining continuity within the character as he ages. For example, the younger Michael has this odd habit of smiling at the strangest times. At first, this bothered me a bit, until I realized that the older Michael had the same weird habit. In addition, the resemblance between the two is strong, which helps with the believability factor.

In the movies, it's become commonplace to vilify certain groups of people or things without objection. For example, aliens are a convenient target. Need a massive evil force to invade the planet at a moment's notice? They're your man. (well, technically not your man, but I'm not sure what noun to insert there) How about the insane? It's incredibly easy make the villain out of a person (presumably one who used to be a friend/relative of the hero) who, usually through either a freak accident or a traumatic experience, has lost his/her mind. If you were to write a screenplay and use either of these two types of villain as your antagonist, no one would blink an eye.

There is, however, another archetypical villain that has been used countless times as perhaps the most convenient of targets: the Nazi. Maybe it's a sense of moral superiority that audiences derive from knowing that, almost no matter what, they are superior to this group of people who was responsible for the deaths of almost 6 million innocent men, women, and children. Maybe it's just because they're an exceptionally easy target to shoot at. Could be a little of both. While there have been films with sympathetic Nazi characters, like Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List, and Doctor Lessing in Life is Beautiful, I can't recall a film with a truly sympathetic character who was a member of the S.S.

That's one thing that really impressed me about The Reader. Instead of contenting itself with mere condemnation, the film makes a much-needed effort to do something much more vital. It tries to understand.

I'm not suggesting that The Reader lets people like Hanna Schmitz off the hook for their actions. That would be undeniably, unbelievably wrong. That's not the point. What it does instead is try to understand how a person like her might think and why she acted as she did, given her circumstances. This, I think, is infinitely more valuable than the standard angry finger-wagging that occurs in almost any other characterization of Nazis that I can think of.

So, what does this add up to? Simply put, The Reader is a film that I've been looking forward to for quite a while and is something I'll be thinking about for a long time to come. The questions are hard and the answers even harder, but I think that we are better for having made the effort. This is one of the year's best films.


LittleDreamer said...

Would I annoy you if I said the number is actually closer to 10 million? :) Accuracy aside, well said. It's extremely gratifying to see people outside of my little history/CSUF world recognize and grapple with many of the same issues that have consumed my life for the past 3 years. This exemplifies Primo Levi's "gray zone" casting Schmitz as both a victim and perpetrator. I love it.

Christina said...

I'm glad to see your review. I wasn't sure whether the film would be worth going to see or not, and now I know. :)

Adam said...

I really hope that this film gets a wider audience and some recognition come Oscar time. While I understand some of the criticisms being labeled against the film, I feel that some of these things are actually some of its strengths.

Anonymous said...

Another one I need to see! I hope I can add more here once I do.

LittleDreamer, where are you going to Grad school at?