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Sins of the Obtuse
A film review of THE READER by Camus
"What good fortune for those in power
that the people do not think."
Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf, 1923)


In Hannah Schmitz's case, it's not the lack of thinking but the quality of those thoughts. Did she ever really understand the morality of blind obedience? There are very few actresses who would agree to portray Hannah Schmitz. No. It's not her early membership of the Nazi SS, neither is it her subsequent murderous behaviour. I'm not even talking about the required nudity of which there is a great deal. It takes some balls, so to speak, to bare all for the camera and any actor, male or female, who does this in a movie of distinction and who displays their entire unclothed body for a valid dramatic reason is to be acknowledged. So what's the catch? Why might Hannah Schmitz be an anathema to most actors? She's not blessed, not to put too finer point on it, with a sharp mind. She's obtuse and frequently crass and seemingly emotionally under-developed. Oh, she does think. She just doesn't do it very well. I can't see playing obtuse as a huge attraction to actors – OK, Of Mice and Men... To be controversial, isn't it more acceptable that actors play above their game learning parts written by smarter folks? It's always been Lisa Simpson's curse...

I admit it. The trailer sucker punched me. This is precisely 'my kind of movie' if such a sub-genre existed. A lifelong mystery with horror at one end, remorse at the other and lives twisted along the way. In short, set in the mid fifties, a besotted fifteen year old is shown some kindness by a woman in whose alley he became ill. Returning to say thank you with flowers after a three month stint in bed, he glimpses her pubic hair while pretending not to. Eyes meet and before you know it, Michael Berg is deflowered and enjoying an affair with an older woman expanding a sexual freedom boys at that age dream of – well I did. It always struck me as a good growing up strategy – being taught some sexual basics by an older partner – a sort of primer that you grow up from but always appreciate. The important point here is "that you grow up from." Michael Berg never got over it. As Ralph Fiennes, Michael is cold with women, introspective and indifferent to his family. Hannah Schmitz cracked him open like a walnut and then deserted him leaving him raw and vulnerable. I submit that it's Michael as much as Hannah who needs to accept his own complicity in his own emotional scarring.

Hannah's shame at a personal shortcoming is enough to condemn her without protest to a life in prison. Here is a woman who admits her folly because telling a lie or twisting the truth seems beyond her. She seems genuinely astonished at her compatriots' self-serving betrayal of Hannah's own 'truth'. This doesn't remove one iota of fascination of the portrayal. Hannah Schmitz is a wonderful character firstly reminding you of Brando in Last Tango in Paris (a meeting, leading to pure sex, no names given...). Her brittle nature is at odds with any signs of self-preserving intelligence that might have elicited cunning to help her stave off what must be the verdict of an open and shut case – in this case a shut door Schmitz had the power to open and did not. She was, how's it put? "...under orders."

The actor that took this role on did so bravely in my opinion. It's one hell of a part but demanding in all the senses that actors talk about their craft, high falutin' words that have you secretly sniggering about how serious they all take it. This role actually is serious and any intellectualizing over what seems to be such a visceral performance seems redundant. And you don't just get one actor playing such a part, you get two. The nudity is not 'one way'. Both man and woman express themselves in ways that are frank, adult and thought provoking. Of course, Hannah is played by Kate Winslet. Here is not the sniveling teenager that Emma Thompson took the piss out of in her hugely entertaining Sense and Sensibility diary. Here is a woman, a real woman with curves and all the cunning of apple pie. Winslet's thirty-four but with artful make up, she plays Hannah's lifetime convincingly, heartbreakingly (how many SS murderers can you say that about?) and truthfully – the Holy Grail for any screen performer. So let's also heap praise on her co-star. Ralph Fiennes - yes, he of brimming eyes and tortuous burden – does a fine job as the repressed adult Michael but it's Michael as a boy who startles.

David Kross, it should surprise no one, is German. The whole movie is in slightly accented English and this works very well given it's always a knotty problem to solve in English speaking foreign-located movies. But Kross is superb in this role, going from the runaway child to the confident, sexual 'man' all of sixteen years old. There is nothing quite scalpel-like in its truth as the idea that breaking the sexual duck gives men confidence. Billy Eliot and The Hours director, Stephen Daldry, shows this playfully by having a recent orgasm lead logically to him shooting balls into a net with a telling change in what must have been a fairly bookish demeanor in school. Later we learn that Michael was fifteen years old at his sexual deflowering – he looked a little older – but this is a small niggle. Kross is a wonder etching every emotion in his eyes and with the rest of his body, fear that segues to abandon and a misplaced love.

And this is the crux. Not only are we dealing with a woman whose intelligence is in question but a boy and man who was and is not able to compartmentalize a very early relationship and develop from it. I sound dangerously like I know the secret of all good relationships – or that I know on which notice board the guidelines are written. I don't but I can spot dysfunction when I see it (on screen...) Alas, my sensitivity does not extend to real life except when it comes to poor Jade Goody. To digress, I saw a photo of this wretch with the headline "Shock of Jade as her hair falls out..." yesterday and felt what I never thought I'd feel towards anything associated with Big Brother unless the name Orwell is attached; genuine pity for a woman who has proved herself time and time again to be brainless tabloid fodder for those who revel in the arena of the superior. But now she has cancer and so instead of changing down to second and driving away to let her deal with her woes, the press has decided that all's fair in love and phwoar and cancer is just another phwoar, another hook to deprive people who cannot afford it, of their daily bread. Digression over.

The Reader perhaps outstays its welcome by a few scenes but it's not to the detriment of the movie as a whole. It's sad to note that within two months of each other both executive producers died (directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack). They would have been very proud of this film. There aren't many of these kinds of movies out there right now. Catch The Reader before it disappears.

The Reader

USA / Germany 2008
124 mins
Stephen Daldry
Donna Gigliotti
Anthony Minghella
Redmond Morris
Sydney Pollack
David Hare
based on the book (book 'Der Vorleser' by
Bernhard Schlink
Roger Deakins
Chris Menges
Claire Simpson
Nico Muhly
production design
Brigitte Broch
Ralph Fiennes
Jeanette Hain
David Kross
Kate Winslet
Susanne Lothar
Alissa Wilms
Florian Bartholomäi
Friederike Becht
release date (UK)
2 January 2009
review posted
21 January 2009