Let the rehabilitation of the Nazis continue. Hannah Arendt, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century as well as a Holocaust survivor, wrote about the “banality of evil” — that, for the most part, it’s not monsters who commit terrible crimes, but ordinary people. This is a fact Hollywood has mostly ignored, because it has well served its purposes to make the Nazis into monsters. But now, for some reason, the tide is turning, and we’re all of a sudden willing to see our enemies as men like us. I think it started a few years ago with Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” might’ve been helped a little by “Black Book,” and has really picked up steam this year with “Valkyrie” and “The Reader” both getting plenty of attention – and selling plenty of tickets.
Let me say right up front that “The Reader” is a heck of a lot better movie than “Valkyrie.” Where “Valkyrie” felt like it was trying to convince me of something it didn’t quite believe itself, “The Reader” simply poses questions — and good questions, not so much about the guilt or innocence of the German people, but about how to deal with that guilt, how to punish the guilty, and how to recover from such an atrocity. They are difficult questions, and ones worth considering.
The movie opens on a Morning After. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael Berg as an adult, and it quickly becomes clear that he is stuck in a routine of empty relationships, unable to open up or allow anyone in. We will learn that this is because of the mark made by his first relationship, and the scars he carries. Yes, it’s a cliche. But is it meant to be a symbol for the German people, scarred by their love affair with the Nazi party? Unable to find happiness, doomed to emptiness?
We flash back to Berg at 15, and witness his illicit affair with a much older woman (Kate Winslet.) This part is, no doubt about it, excessive. It’s any 15 year old boy’s wet dream, starring a beautiful woman who both takes care of him like a mother and orders him around like a dominatrix, most of the time while wearing nothing. She orders him to read to her, and then undresses while saying, “that’s enough for today, kid.” She tells him he doesn’t matter to her, and then admits that he does. And then, one day, she disappears.
I hope you will not watch this movie because of the sex; also, I hope you will not avoid this movie because of the sex. Not much I can do if you’re in the first camp, except wonder why you read movie reviews in the first place. But if you’re in the second camp, do this: rent it, when it comes out, and immediately fast forward to the 36 minute mark. Everything you need to know about the first part, I’ve already told you; everything really great about “The Reader” happens after that point.
Because “The Reader” isn’t really a movie about sex; it’s a movie primarily about guilt, and also forgiveness, perhaps, definitely kindness, and, in a way, it’s about the passage of time. Turns out the Winslet is a Nazi war criminal — an SS guard at Auschwitz, to be exact. (The affair happened after World War II but before Nuremberg.) Berg re-encounters her at her trial years later – he is a law student, and only there to observe. She is on trial with a group of other guards, and unlike them, is honest about what happened, and the role she played in it. This is where “the Reader” gets a little tricky — because of her honesty, and a lie she tells to protect her pride, she receives a far harsher sentence than the other women on trial with her. Be careful, dear reader, in how much sympathy you feel for her at this point. It is true that an injustice has been done, but it is not in the harshness of her sentence, but the lenience of theirs. They deserve her sentence, not vice versa. Her crimes were real, and they were atrocious, and they’re mostly skipped over in “The Reader.” If you need to be reminded just how horrible Auschwitz is, go back and watch “Schindler’s List.” She deserves her sentence.
And yet…she is a human being, after all. She deserves prison, but does she deserve to be treated like a monster? Kicked, spat on, reviled? Berg knew her as a woman before he learned she was a criminal, and we, the viewers, have the same experience. If the real crime of the Nazis was that they treated the Jews like animals, are we any better if we treat the Nazis like monsters? If Hannah Arendt is right about the banality of evil, then is there a corresponding banality about justice? Where, and how, does justice play out, and when has someone been punished enough?
I’ve hardly mentioned her to this point, but Kate Winslett is absolutely astonishing here. She plays Hannah with intensity, complexity, humanity, and a few other -itys, too, probably. Without her performance, “The Reader” would fall flat on its face. With her, it’s Oscar-nominated. This is, by far, the best performance of her career, and she’d have my vote for “Best Actress,” if I had a vote.
The rest of the movie is about an act of kindness, and its consequences. By this point, the questions posed by “The Reader” loom much bigger than the movie posing them. I’m not sure all the events that take place in the final third really make sense or hold together, but by that time, I’m too taken with the questions to really be bothered by the plot. This movie exists to ask questions, hard ones, not to move us with its story, and certainly not to feed us answers. There are few movies like it.
- if you like ambitious movies that ask big questions they can’t really handle
- for fans of ponderous, moody cinema.
- if you are, or anyone you love is, German and wondering how to deal with your people’s past.
- if you aren’t German, but are still wondering how to deal with your people’s past.
- if you only want to see Kate Winslet naked. Go watch “Titanic.”
- if you hate moody, ponderous movies.
- if you’re not in the mood for big, hard questions and just want a popcorn movie.