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Zettel Film Reviews » The Reader – compassion not forgiveness: a moral dilemma

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The Reader – compassion not forgiveness: a moral dilemma



The Reader – Stephen Daldry

This is a morally complex film: which probably explains why it has polarised critical opinion. The Reader demonstrates better than any recent film I can remember, the vital importance of what the viewer brings to the artistic experience – both to the quality of that experience and the value of the work that has generated it.

The Reader also skirts two other treacherous film boundaries: how to treat stories with the Holocaust as context; and however unwittingly, allowing a treatment of a serious issue to become meretricious and insincere. In at least two, in my view obtuse reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian, Daldry is accused of failing to avoid both pitfalls. I disagree.

I explored some of the issues on the Holocaust dilemma in an extended review of The Pianist (Roman Polanski – 2002). As for what one critic in his review of The Reader calls ‘Oscar-bait’, I like to think my antennae are well tuned for this as many of my reviews show – not least Daldry’s own The Hours (2002), also made in collaboration with David Hare.

Like The Hours, David Hare’s screenplay for The Reader adapts a book – here Bernard Schlink’s best-seller of the same name. But there the similarity ends. Hare’s intelligent, subtle, austere dialogue in The Reader is evocatively realised by Daldry’s Direction with great sensitivity. The result is a film that provokes thought, stirs moral unease and is very moving.

In terms of structure and tone, The Reader recalls the superb Lives Of Others (Florian von Donnersmarck 2007). Both deal with conflict between the personal and the social: the moral dilemma of individual human beings trapped within an all-powerful, pervasive, morally corrupt social structure. For policeman Ged Wiesler in ‘Lives’ this was the Stasi secret police in Post War East Germany: for Kate Winslett’s Hanna Schmitz it is the way her role during the second world war comes back to haunt her in Post-War West Germany. The other link between these two excellent films signalling their literary provenance is that both have carefully crafted plot structures with a satisfying sense of narrative symmetry.

Hanna helps 15 year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) when the onset of scarlet fever has him taken ill in a freezing rainstorm outside her modest flat. With brisk efficiency she cleans him up, dries his clothes while he has a hot bath and then sees him home to his stultifying, emotionally sterile middle-class family.

The enforced intimacy of being naked before an attractive older woman arouses Michael’s youthful sexuality and his powerful young body similarly stirs her. Using the excuse of thanking her Michael meets Hanna again and they begin an affair during one Summer. Daldry’s frank and open treatment of their developing relationship conveys perfectly Hanna’s deep need for the warmth and intimacy Michael provides and which contrasts starkly with her otherwise cold, austere, orderly life as a trolleybus conductor. Michael is a beautiful sensitive boy in a virile man’s body and with Hanna’s guidance and sensitivity to his inexperience, he falls in love as perhaps only a teenage boy fully exploring the pleasures of his sexuality for the first time can.

The intimacy of their sexual connection is widened when Hanna says she loves to be read to and Michael begins to select books to read to her; from Homer to Mark Twain, Tin-Tin to Chekhov. We have a keen sense that these stories are a new and enticing experience for Hanna just as sexual intimacy is for Michael. The inequality in their sexual understanding is therefore compensated for by his greater familiarity with literature. This in a sense balances out the age difference. The warmth and easy intimacy of their love-making and sharing of stories contrasts sharply with Michael’s emotionally claustrophobic family life. And the forbidden, adult nature of his secret intensifies the experience for him.

When Hanna suddenly disappears one day Michael is desolated. Eventually he goes off to University to study law where his teacher Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz), addressing issues in the philosophy of law such as legality and justice, moral and legal responsibility, takes the group to the trial of 6 female warders from Auschwitz. Although now in his early twenties Michael is still deeply affected by his youthful affair. He is therefore shocked and revolted when he sees that Hanna is one of the defendants. As the awful details of the events with which Hanna is charged emerge we share and understand Michael’s devastating emotional conflict – repugnance at what this woman has done clashing head-on with his cherished memory of their deep, sensitive, intimate relationship.

It is at this point that what the viewer brings to this situation becomes critical. I argued in my essay on the The Pianist that for any artist to feel that in using the Holocaust as a context they the need to dramatise such events is a profound misjudgement moral and aesthetic. Equally and more directly relevant to The Reader, there is something grotesque about the artistic and moral perception that feels the writer or the Director must both tell us that such acts are wrong or worse, why. To feel this regarding perhaps the most uniquely evil events in human history, is to display an aesthetic crassness implying a shallow understanding of what makes these events so deeply disturbing; and patronise your audience to the point of insult.

It is this moral obtuseness that seems to underlie some of the critical reactions I mention above. We all feel repugnance and contempt before such acts of inhumanity but if we are not further overwhelmed by the questions ‘why’ and ‘how’ we are missing a profound issue; indeed, probably evading it. It is convenient to attribute the horrors of Nazi Germany to the some uniquely evil individual ‘monsters’. But the facts won’t support this comforting illusion. Hitler first gained power democratically by the popular vote of the German people; much of what was happening in the camps was known; and the anti-semitism of the Nazis found a ready echo within large sections of the German population between the wars. And if we smugly regard these horrors as somehow uniquely German a litany of names gives the lie to that: Rwanda, Cambodia, Serbia, Congo, Darfur etc etc.

Schlink’s story places the disturbing and bewildering paradoxes here on a perfect collision course. Hanna’s instinctive kindness in helping Michael; her human warmth and natural, normal, shy even, sexuality within their affair; her childish delight in and emotional empathy for the stories he read her. Her humanity if you will. These and therefore Michael’s whole emotional perspective on the world smash themselves against other facts of Hanna’s life; other, appalling things she has done. The court scenes and Hanna’s evidence shocks us and Michael – in a telling interchange with the prosecutor our perplexity deepens further when we have an acute sense of Hanna herself being bewildered and out of her depth clinging desperately and self-incriminatingly on the starkly unpalatable truth. One begins to feel that if we wish to speak of evil and monstrousness here, then it is an essentially social phenomenon that horrifies us. A force, a kind of collective madness that undermined, suppressed and eventually destroyed the instinctive humanity of so many apparently normal, everyday, frighteningly ordinary human beings. ‘The banality of evil’ as Hannah Arendt was eventually to call it.

Michael faces a further moral dilemma when Hanna is singled out among the 6 defendants as both the leader and the instigator of the actions with which they are charged. He realises he has information about her that he discovered during their affair that would prove this to be untrue. As she has not revealed it in her own defence for what seem to be but are not trivial reasons, he is torn as to whether he should do so. He decides to remain quiet and Hanna is sentenced to life while the other 5 are given only a few years each.

Daldry reveals this narrative through a characteristically effective use of flash-backs. So we have from the first met Michael as a lawyer in his 40s (Ralph Fiennes), divorced and with a daughter to whom he has always been emotionally distant. We discover that whether to assuage his guilt at Hanna’s life sentence due to her own and his silence or simply because of his inability entirely to dismiss the part of her, the ‘person’ that he loved, he has maintained a remote contact with her. When she eventually writes to him over the years he does not reply but continues to respond to her requests with practical help.

Hanna has no family and no friends, the prison records showing Michael as her only contact over 20 years. He is therefore asked to sponsor her parole. He meets with her for the first time since they were lovers, she still calling him affectionately ‘kid’. He sets up a job and arranges to collect her the following day. How you read what follows is key to the whole moral core of the film. We become the ‘readers’ of Hanna’s story. To understand the ending as any kind of effort at mitigation or forgiveness of Hanna’s actions is in my view to be blind to the sensitive, precisely achieved delicate balance of Daldry’s film. A critical humility, a sense of humanity is required to feel in your heart a distinction between the person and some of her actions. It is the greatest achievement of Winslett’s beautifully modulated performance that she touches the heart and horrifies the mind at one and the same time. It is the best acting performance by a woman I have seen this year and proves what a fine, sensitive, film actress Kate Winslett has become.

I found the ending deeply moving. Michael meets with his daughter and, like Hanna before him and perhaps because of her example, in the absence of any credible or acceptable explanation or excuse, simply relies on the truth – an uncomfortable, in many ways discreditable truth to confess to one’s daughter. No one in this film seeks forgiveness. But if the truth doesn’t quite set them free, it invites our compassion. Whether the viewer feels it may perhaps say as much about them as about Daldry’s fine film.

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