Friday, 9 January 2009

January movies: The Reader

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader
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.

19 comments:

Anne said...

Yes! I can't wait to see this one. It just recently opened near us, and I'm hoping to see it this weekend, so perhaps I'll hold off on more commentary until after I see it. From reading/hearing other reviews, I know bits of what you allude to, so the Guardian piece does seem coincidentally timely.

In other adaptation movie viewing, we saw Doubt last night. Very good. The narrative was less than engaging at times, and I thought that the directing was a little self-conscious, but the cast made up for it. I adore Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they did not disappoint. Amy Adams was excellent, too.

JaneyV said...

If you look back on movie history you will see that close to any war in question the movies tend to be action movies which either glorify or vilify a particular side. As the distance gets greater the introspection seeps in. Perhaps we've needed 60 years to be able to ask the more morally troubling questions. I think that this looks like a really interesting film. If we are brought back to the notion that morality is a social construct, what happens if the social fabric is skewed, as it was with Naziism, by hatred, fear and intimidation? Is morality innate? How would anyone react in an authoritarian society when their duty to their country and their personal morals came into conflict? The reason why the Nazis were able to persuade good people to do unthinkable things was largely because they changed the moral climate in tiny increments, they subtly eroded the moral fabric over time while creating a climate of fear and suspicion. And as humans we are susceptible to persuasion by intimidation and therefore controllable. This is why it is necessary to visit and revisit and interrogate and re-interrogate everything that happened in Germany in WW2. The lessons of that period cannot be forgotten.

I've been looking at the trailers for Good and I think it looks just as interesting for all of the reasons mentioned above but also because I would watch a film about snow melting if Viggo Mortensen was in it. Love. Him!

Reya Mellicker said...

Provocative thoughts and observations, thank you!

I'm eager to see The Reader. Don't miss Australia - it's a hoot - like a movie from the 1950's.

Milk is GREAT, too. Gloomy month, great movies. There's a nice symmetry to it, don't you think?

Also wanted to say, I do think there's a law that transcends human law but I'm unclear that any of us humans can truly comprehend it fully. But we can try! We must try, in fact, don't you think?

Bee said...

Anne - Do see it; it is a fascinating story to me. I did find Hanna to be sympathetic, for reasons that I can't go into here for fear of spoiling!

Streep, Hoffman and Adams? Yes, I would happily see anything they do. Also interesting in the sense of making moral judgments.

Janey - Goodness, your comment is much, much better than my post! Thank for giving such a considered reply . . . and bothering to read it all in the first place!

I so, so agree with your reflections on the skewed social fabric. There is a powerful scene where Hanna is being "judged" and pronounced upon, and she asks (honestly, innocently), "but what would you have done?"

Don't you find it interesting to think about the authoritarian/miliary imperatives of modern Israel?

BTW, totally agree about Viggo.

Reya - Oh yes, I agree: We must try. Actually, I do think that at least a few cultures have striven to express that "higher" law . . . but we do tend to fall short. I guess that is why I think that the law is ultimately so necessary and valuable. For all of its shortcomings, it does (at its best) try to effect a better world.

On a lighter note, I want to see Australia this weekend . . . mostly for the love of Hugh Jackman! (We aren't getting previews of Milk yet . . . sometimes American films are very slow to arrive here.)

Elizabeth said...

Must be movie day.
Saw Slumdog Millionaire yesterday - or part of it.
It is one of the few films I've ever walked out of. Torture at the beginning, a mother killed in front of her children, children made to suffer. Yikes - and it's meant to be a feel good movie.

Hated the book "The Reader" when it came out - have a sort of 'thing' about fictional Holocaust stuff. Doesn't seem a fit subject to make up stories about. Really like and admire both R.Feinnes and K. Winslet though.....so maybe will see on your recommendation.
As the child of a former British POW and a German refugee from E.Germany I have been a pacifist all my life.
However,
Am so miserable about Gaza and America's failure to take any sort of proper moral stand against crimes against civilians there in Iraq and Afganistan too.
Don't get me started...
So much misery everywhere and so hard to stay positive.
all best

herhimnbryn said...

Oh, oh I want to go and see this now AND read the book. Thankyou Bee Lady.

ps. Have left an answer to the question you left on my 'Morning' post ;)

Dick said...

What an excellent post, Bee. From review to essay on moral conundrums and back. The movie is now a must!

Anne said...

Do see Milk if/when it eventually arrives there, Bee. It's poignantly timely--not just because of the 30th anniversary of the assassinations, but the whole Prop 8 thing here in California. It's an interesting illustration of just how far we have (and haven't) come in the last 30 years.

Lucy said...

YOu really should be doing this for money somewhere.

I was intrigued by the tv trailers for the film, and one or two others, and it only just occurred to me that perhaps they do bring out the more serious films at this time of year. Kind of antithesis of panto I guess!

Anyway, I'm very interested to see it now.

Susanna (A Modern Mother) said...

I read The Reader for my book club last spring/summer and I recommend it all the time.

It is a thought provoking novel and deals with a serious subject.

The best part is that it is only a couple hundred pages! So easy to read if you have small children and very little time.

I wasn't sure about Kate Winslet being caste as Hanna, but I guess I'll have to go see it (hmmmm, can't remember the last film I saw in the cinema...)

Bee said...

Elizabeth - We've just been reading about "Slumdog," and as you say, it's been billed as "feel good!" But they can be silly/misleading in the way they sell movies. Last night I kept hearing reviews for The Reader on the radio - (classical music; definitely the middle-aged crowd) -- and they were describing it is a "touching love story," which I think is wide off the mark!

If you didn't like the novel, I'm not sure that you should see the film - they are very similar. IMO, the story isn't about the war so much as it is about the guilt/feelings of responsibility of the next generation. I think the question is whether or not circumstances can mitigate the way we view the crime . . . and if you find that idea utterly repugnant, you might hate the film. The camp survivor who is depicted in the film does have harsh words to say on this subject.

Bee said...

Elizabeth - Just realized I didn't mention Gaza. I was just reading about it on the Internet, too . . . how Israel has ignored the call for a cease-fire and seems to operating without a clear objective of end-plan (sound familiar?). I'm with you about being a pacifist, but then what to do about all of the bullies in the world?

herhimnbryn - What has been the reception of Australia in the southern hemisphere? Do you follow these things?

Thanks for answering my question!

Dick - Well, I like moral conundrums . . . although obviously it would be a bit easier if things were black and white! I'd like to hear what you have to say about this film.

Anne - Yes, I definitely will see it! I've heard that Sean Penn is very good. You are right about the continued relevance . . . but then will the battle for "moral ground" ever be finished?

Lucy - I'm assuming that you haven't read the book. It was published in 1995 in Germany -- and was written by a law professor who is very similar in age and upbringing to the young protagonist. I think it was very brave for him to tackle the subject, really.

I'm sure that my husband would appreciate it if I could make some money from the hours I spend holed up in my study! I didn't really write a review, though . . . all of the ones I've read totally give the game away. (That's why I wondered if people who hate spoilers actually read reviews. Don't you find that they will end up telling you most of the story?)

Susanna - You are right; it is a very easy read! Such good value for a couple of hours of reading.

It annoys me that we hardly ever go to movies here. They were a big part of our life when we lived in a city.

I thought that Kate was very well-cast, actually. Her strong-boned face and body seemed perfect. Also, she conveys both the Germanic no nonsenseness and an almost childlike guilelessness very well. Nicole Kidman originally had the part, but dropped out when she got pregnant. I think she would have been all wrong!

Elizabeth said...

Happy birthday indeed.
Hope all the presents ARE books.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I haven't been out to a movie in ever so long! However, I will add The Reader to my to-read list. Thanks for the recommendation!

Bee said...

JAPRA - Did you see that Kate Winslet won two Golden Globes today? One for this role, and one for her role in Revolutionary Road.

Fantastic Forrest said...

BD,

Love your writing and analysis of this. I'm going to be on the laptop for the rest of the evening catching up with your prolific posts!

marc aurel said...

For a change, a really interesting interview with a director. I also enjoyed your own more recent one.
Back to the film, don't we all go along, despite an outraged feeling that we would not have in certain other situations?

Bee said...

Fantastic Forrest - Wow! Thanks.

Marc - I'm so glad that you took the time to listen to the Daldry interview. I thought it was very insightful, and it helps that he has such an intelligent "voice." I can't bear it when most actors describe their "work." All description and no analysis.

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