Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon (c)
January is not my favorite month, true, but it is one of my abiding beliefs that there is always an upside -- a silver lining.
As a movie lover, I look forward to that winter flurry of films aimed at the (let's just admit it) thinking adult market. In other words, the Oscar-worthy for your consideration kind of films. The kind of films that are adapted from literary sources. The kind of films that tackle moral/ethical gray areas. The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink's German novel of the same name, is just that sort of film - not exactly "feel good," but it will certainly get you thinking.
"Cynically calculated Oscar bait is rarely as ethically problematic as The Reader," says Wendy Ide, reviewing for The Times (01.01.09). That first part of that sentence sort of amuses me -- so stroppy, Wendy! I suppose that if you are going to involve Stephen Daldry (director), David Hare (screenwriter) and the gilded acting duo of Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes in a production then you are bound to be opening yourself up to such criticism. While I would like to think that the financiers of the project had no goal other than to make the finest possible film, who would deny that nominations and prestigious awards actually do help sell tickets? We went to this film on its opening weekend -- in Basingstoke, admittedly -- and the (smallish) theater was hardly half-full. I had been looking forward to this film -- as I had adored the novel, still clear in my mind despite being read ten years ago -- but I was obviously in a minority. If Kate Winslet (practically a hometown girl, being from nearby Reading) manages to carry off a gold statue for her role as Hanna, I assume that will bring out a few more Berkshire and Hampshire punters.
Do people who dislike spoilers ever read movie or book reviews? In the case of this movie, it is impossible to talk about the characters and not give away some of the plot's secrets and surprises. Can I just hint at time and place? Although the story unfolds during several time periods, with cross-cutting between various "presents" and "pasts," it is underpinned -- and haunted -- by events which take place in Germany during World War II. In the previews for the movie, which were dominated by Defiance and Valkyrie, it was obvious that WWII is the favored theme for this winter's films. Later, I realized that a whole clutch of current films -- amongst them Australia, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Good -- also concern themselves with this still-troubling war. Although I haven't seen many of them yet, I've read enough to know that each story revolves around individuals who have to examine, and then act upon, their personal convictions in the midst of a violent cultural current which has its own imperatives.
I read somewhere that most of the recent movies about Iraq have tanked at the box office. The reviewer suggested that that war is just too close for comfort. Perhaps this proliferation of WWII stories suggests that we prefer our war stories to be at an emotional remove. It's just so much easier to judge events from the past.
I can't help but think of the tragic battling over the Gaza Strip, which happens to be playing out for real in this conflict-obsessed movie season. At the moment, even journalists hardly have access to that closed and dangerous area. Who knows how long it will be before we can put together a coherent history about what is happening in that time and place? Will the heroes and villains prove to be closed-and-shut case of black and white, or rather more difficult to typecast? Although WWII ended more than six decades ago, it is obvious that Israel's fears and sense of entitlement still flow fresh from that source. Israel believes that it has legal rights, but also moral ones -- and the two are not always the same.
In the novel of the The Reader, which I was compelled to reread of course, the central character describes his relationship to the law -- which is both profession and intellectual obsession for him. He says, "For a long time I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development towards greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats" (Schlink, p. 179). Later, the character of Michael Berg comes to understand the law as a sort of perpetual journey: "motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile," (Schlink, p. 180).
Although this sudden veering into the topic of the law might seem digressive, it is directly related to perhaps the central question of The Reader, at least as I understand it. Should we be judged by law as it is codified in our particular context, or is there a law (ie, morality) which transcends context and is the ultimate arbiter of human actions? Since the courts of law can only abide by the first sort of law, whose role is it to decide and dispense the presumably higher kind of law?
To me, it was an odd (or is it apt?) coincidence that an interview with Lynndie England -- the infamous Abu Ghraib guard -- featured in The Guardian Weekend (03.01.09) magazine. Although England was much vilified for her treatment of detainees, I was left with the impression that she still doesn't entirely understand why. She seems firmly convinced that the injured parties were "bad guys;" furthermore, even the Senate armed services committee ultimately concluded that official policies "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees" (p. 16). In other words, Lynndie was (more or less) just doing her job as she understood it. (If you know the story of The Reader, you will get that I am being sneaky here . . . while trying to avoid an obvious spoiler.)
From what I've read, Kate Winslet has been universally praised for her portrayal of Hanna. The only criticism seems to be that she did her job too well; she made a dubious character all too sympathetic. As Michael Berg says in the novel,
I wanted simultaneously to understand
Hanna's crime and to condemn it.
But it was too terrible for that.
When I tried to understand it,
I had the feeling that I was failing
to condemn it as it must be condemned.
When I condemned it as it must be condemned,
there was no more for understanding.
I wanted to pose myself both tasks --
understanding and condemnation.
But it was impossible to do both.
(The Reader, p. 156)
Frankly, I think that the filmmakers had exactly the same problem.
Afterword: Sigmund sent me this link to an interview with Stephen Daldry, the director of the film. If you are interested in this story, it is very worthwhile.