The Reader (2008)


Giving it the benefit of every doubt, it’s supposed to be a drama of painful “understanding.”

I found this movie about postwar West Germany, especially that Germany in the late 1950s on, in which the principals are imagining a need for fathoming the Holocaust, to be fatuous storytelling averse to a blatant and horrific well-visualized reality that must never become vague history. Worse, I found it exploitative and, at moments, came close to agreeing with one US reviewer I read afterwards who pronounced it near pornographic.

German lawyer Bernhard Schlink’s popular 1995 novel is a wretched contrivance which presents an uncomplicated and rather dull affair between a boy of sixteen and a woman in her thirties and, staging sex intermingled with classic literature whose opening sentences only are read by the boy to the illiterate woman (which merits “pseudointellectual” if anything does) and, as it turns out, former prison guard at a Nazi labor camp, then swerves abruptly to a clumsy, phony attempt to become a post mortem courtroom drama/prison movie apparently intended as a metaphor of young, postwar generations in Germany trying to understand the Nazi era.

Ralph Fiennes, master of the pained, deeply troubled demeanor (where’s Groucho to throw a pie in his face?) is just right as the main troubled searcher for an explanatory post mortem.

As to Kate Winslet as the ex-prison guard, why she got an Oscar for her performance puzzles me. But then, Oscars are often historical puzzles, if very minor ones.

The films which count here, it seems to me, include: Triumph of the Will; Conspiracy; The Bridge on the River Kwai, Schindler’s List; and Judgment at Nuremberg; and in that order (though they were not made in that order). They are as far as they go faithful cinematic mirrors of that dreadful past. No movie will ever convey the full horror of the reality, of course, but they go some unflinching distance toward showing it, often in a literal enough way that should leave no doubt anytime and anywhere about “understanding” what happened. In Judgment at Nuremberg, Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) says what needs to be said about the Nazis, the death camps, and the question of guilt, it seems to me. He says it three different times: in his courtroom summation before rendering a verdict; in his final comments to the German defense lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell); and in his final comments to the German judge and defendant, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). When US Army Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) narrates films in the courtroom of what was found in the concentration camps when Allied forces liberated them, you behold horrifically and amply what you need to see to understand. You see the record.

In The Reader, the protagonist, Michael Berg, then a law student in his twenties, visits alone one night an empty Nazi concentration camp over a decade after the war. Wandering through the empty rooms, he appears to be trying to reconstruct what it must have been like and why it came into being.


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