‘It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.’
Director Stephen Daldry’s haunting 2008 film of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel Der Vorleser is an uncomfortable and disturbing experience, as intended. It focuses on a 15-year-old Berlin schoolboy who has a passionate affair in the mid-50s with a much older woman – an illiterate tram conductor.
In gaps between bonking, Hanna Schmitz gets the boy Michael Berg to read to her from classics of world literature. He’s heartbroken when she vanishes after their summer of loving, but, as a law student, he encounters her again eight years later when she’s a defendant in a war crimes trial.
The story’s really all about the man, and he’s brilliantly played by David Kross in early years and also by Ralph Fiennes as his older version from the 70s to the 90s. Both men are intense, tortured and smouldering. Nevertheless, it was Kate Winslet who won an Oscar for her brisk, competent and highly professional performance – why didn’t the amazing Melissa Leo win for Frozen River that year? – and the two men weren’t even nominated. Well, life’s unfair!
On a practical level, the movie has a couple of problems with English actors playing Germans with fake ‘German’ accents and with the hiccups of the time-scale jumps first by a decade, then later two decades, as Winslet ages in none-too-convincing old-lady makeup and Kross turns into the familiar and very different features of Fiennes. These time shifts work well in novels but in movies they’re a nuisance.
Then there’s the whole idea of what the film’s about. Its morality is unclear. Is Winslet’s character of Hanna Schmitz a Nazi mass murderer or not? If she is, why are we supposed to sympathise with her? What’s the reading thing supposed to be about? Is the idea that reading redeems the world?
Though small scale, this haunting, literate and thought-provoking film is very posh, classy and beautifully crafted. There’s an extremely handsome period production (by production designer Brigitte Broch and supervising art director Christian M Goldbeck) and distinguished cinematography (by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins).
This lifts it very comfortably way above the level of the TV movie it could easily have become. However the annoyingly insistent music (by Nico Muhly) is a big downside. But David Hare handles the difficult task of providing the expert screenplay that adapts the book discreetly and smoothly.
The film had five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but won only the one for Winslet as Best Actress. Lena Olin is marvellous at the end as Jewish survivor Rose Mather. It took more than $100million at the box office, sensational business for a movie as serious as this.
Rated R for scenes of sexuality and nudity.
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 536
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