WARNING: If you don't want to know what happens in this film, don't read this post!
As I mentioned in my last post, I went to see the Italian-language version of The Reader yesterday. Kate Winslet won an Oscar for Best Actress for this film, and my initial reaction was that it was very good, but the more I thought about it afterwards, the more I decided it was actually not nearly as good as it could have been. I read the book (Der Vorleser) in German when I was at university and, although I think the ending of the book is weak, there is a lot of depth in the book which isn't really exploited in the film.
The Reader is the story of Michael Berg, who when he is fifteen begins a relationship with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. He reads aloud to her and then they make love in the afternoons when he finishes school. We later learn that Hanna is a former member of the SS and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of people when she worked at the concentration camps.
One of the film's biggest failings is the way in which Michael is portrayed, and therefore how we respond to his relationship with Hanna. In the book, the relationship begins when Michael is just recovering from a long illness. He is a vulnerable, physically weak character who has lost touch with many of his classmates and spent too much time alone. While his relationship with Hanna is fully consensual, you are left with the impression that he is being exploited. There are several scenes in the book when she gets angry with him for no apparent reason and he is left feeling hurt, confused, and almost begging for her to be merciful and take him back. In the film, on the other hand, Michael has an impressive six-pack and biceps and a cheeky twinkle in his eye. He is as much the instigator of the relationship as she is and comes across as a successful seducer rather than a vulnerable teenager.
Portraying Michael in this way removes a lot of depth from the character of Hanna and from the story. The second part of the film shows Michael as a young law student watching Hanna's trial. We know by this point that she is illiterate and that she took the job in the SS when she was offered a promotion by her previous employer that would have required her to read and write. The implication is that her own vulnerability leads her to prey on the weaknesses of others and, as a result, she becomes a hideously twisted and yet somehow sympathetic character, but the film loses out on a lot of this through its shallow portrayal of her relationship with Michael.
The story, both in the book and in the film, touches on a lot of questions about guilt, responsibilty and the consequences of inaction as well as of action. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Hanna attributes her actions in the SS to the need for order and asks the examining magistrate, “What would you have done?” These questions, combined with the beautiful cinematography, are what makes the film worth watching in spite of its weaknesses.
It would be difficult to make a film about the Holocaust without it being thought-provoking, and this was the reason that I liked the film at the beginning. It was on continuing my train of thought, however, that I realised that the film's unnecessary extension of the book's mawkish ending, combined with it's failure to exploit the full potential of the story, made it, in the end, less powerful than it initially appeared.