Friday, February 06, 2009

439 - The Reader review

Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” confronts its protagonist with a moral dilemma and watches patiently as he struggles to draw a conclusion. I did too, and never could make up my mind. That’s because the questions presented are of both culpability and empathy, two factors that endlessly complicate moral considerations. Do we unwittingly reduce the severity of a crime by attempting to gain understanding of the perpetrator? Can something horrific be understood? Should it?

Michael Berg (David Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he is 15. It’s 1958 in West Berlin, and the much older woman lends him aid when he falls ill. He returns to thank her, but their encounter quickly evolves into sex.

Much talk of the film and the novel concerns the illicitness of the affair, but this often ignores the point: Hanna is of a class of people that has difficulty identifying right from wrong. Michael is just happy to be introduced to sex in such a vivid manner, and loves the rush making love to an older woman gives. He begins conducting himself with an iron-clad self-assurance in public, unaware of the gaping wound that the affair will bestow upon his ability to deal with women.

They develop an arrangement: first he reads to her, and then they have sex. Michael don’t seem to think much of this, but then again, what 15-year-old would jeopardize his earthshaking pleasure just to ask a few questions?

But soon, Hanna vanishes, gone without a word, leaving him heartbroken and grasping for answers in the way only an errant lover could. Eight years later, Michael is a law student attending a war crimes trial. There he sees Hanna again, but in a context that nearly destroys him: she was a Nazi prison guard, and participated not only in the daily routine of a concentration camp, but in a specific incident that lead to the massacre of hundreds of prisoners.

Michael observes the trial and has an epiphany. He knows something that doesn’t affect that Hanna is guilty, but to what degree. Yet, he remains silent. Is his decision a form of revenge or a form of guilt?

It’s guilt that lies at the heart of the film’s questions. Our desire to empathize conflicts with the need to punish and condemn, and somehow, neither of these mutually exclusive elements seem sufficient on their own. Michael feels guilt over his relationship with Hanna, even though he was unknowing about her past. Does this spring from the comfort he gave a war criminal, or the fact that he loved her? We remember how the effects of evil easily span generations.

Michael, in adulthood played by Ralph Fiennes, continues his relationship with Hanna through anact that could be considered kindness or atonement, depending on whom you ask. But both areinfected with shame and regret, irreversible for one, perhaps not for the other. In Hanna’s case, what damage was done was clear, but Michael is uncertain of his part. Can the presence of love and understanding aid evil in the same way that their absence does? It often seems so.

1 comment:

Ramin said...

I like it when an actor plays a role that is nearly the exact opposite of a role he plays in a previous hit film. In this case Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, the borderline psychotic nazi concentration camp commandant in Shindler's List, to someone who is in a position to punish a person who helped operate concentration camp. I haven't seen this film, but your review makes it seem more intriguing.