Friday, January 23, 2009


Mrs. Himmler, are you trying to seduce me?

By Edward Copeland
It's always a frequent refrain about how lousy most new movies are, but not enough people are talking about how bad most of the ads for all movies, good and bad, are. Fortunately, I didn't see any TV ads for The Reader before I saw the film itself. This was a good thing, since I saw the annoying TV ad today touting "a twist you'll never see coming" which really can only be true if you are a 16-year-old boy who gets to boink Kate Winslet a lot or if you didn't notice that George W. Bush was a particularly bad president.

While I still prefer Winslet's role in Revolutionary Road, she's good here as well (Honestly, has she ever given a bad performance?) and I'm grateful to the Academy for saving me the trouble of whining about how there's no way to call her supporting in The Reader. The team of director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (whom I usually like as a playwright) gave me pause given what they produced with the death-affirming The Hours before I ever saw The Reader, but at least it turned out to be several notches above that even if it still feels as if several different movies have been tossed into a blender.

The first portion quite literally consists of endless scenes of Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) and young Michael Berg (David Kross) behaving as if they are re-enacting Last Tango in Paris minus the butter. Then, Berg ages enough to go to law school (though he's still played by Kross) and attends a German war crimes trial of six death camp guards and is shocked to find that Hanna is one of the defendants.

Ten years later, Michael is suddenly Ralph Fiennes, has a daughter and is getting divorced. While The Reader aims to examine many aspects of guilt and culpability (and not all pertaining to World War II), it is often way too obvious in its approach, especially in the scenes with the law students who spell out the themes in BIG BOLD LETTERS just in case you miss them.

The actors keep the film afloat. Fiennes (in his third solid 2008 supporting role), Kross, Bruno Ganz as the law professor (and he was a magnificent Hitler in Downfall just a few years ago) and, of course, Winslet. She is good, even with handicaps placed on her.

Early on, Hanna is prone to sudden fits of anger and shows a tough exterior at times. When she's on trial, she seems frail and helpless and doesn't seem to be the same woman we saw before, but somehow Winslet makes the sale. In the later scenes, Winslet gets saddled with old-age makeup that's nearly as bad as that put on Jennifer Connelly at the end of A Beautiful Mind, a bit of overkill since her character should only be in her early 60s then.

Then again bad makeup didn't stop Connelly from winning an Oscar and Winslet actually deserves the one she should win next month, even if it's for the wrong role.

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Cute title.

I was involved in a conversation with some people at work about Kate Winslet's two Oscarbait films. One person liked Revolutionary Road - the other three (myself included) had mixed to negative reactions.

Here is why I think The Academy responded in the same way that my informal little focus group did: Winslet is good in both films, but in Revolutionary Road, she's playing a character who's impossible to identify or sympathize with. To quote one of my colleagues (shout-out to you, Amy Brunell): "Women got a crappy deal in the 50s...check. The suburbs are stultifying...check. Now stop whining, take some responsibility for you life and stop trying to browbeat your husband into changing his."

I agree with that sentiment..and even the one person in our group who stuck up for the film admitted that April was pretty hard to take at times (and Miss Amy "wanted to smack her.")

I think it says something - a big something - when The Nazi Prison Camp Guard is the character that people respond to in a more positive way. Not because she's good or even likeable, but because she's so unmistakably human.

While you found Winslet's work as Hanna Schmidz inconsistent, I thought she embodied the contradictions of the role beautifully, and in a way that made sense within the entire arc of the performance. I understood how the toughness and coldness she exhibits in the beginning were a product of her self-defensiveness and shame - not just because she is unable to *not-surprising surprise twist*, but because the guilt that she feels over the horrific things she's done and the hard-to-shake, barely acknowledged feeling that she may not, in fact, be deserving of love. That's what made it so shattering later on when the defenses have been stripped away and you see the fear, the vulnerability, and the weight of the choices she's made. All that early toughness - she needs it in order to live with herself. Once it's taken away from her, she crumbles. Personally, I thought she nailed it - bad old-age make-up and all.

I also responded to the subtlety of her work in The Reader - and I notice that even champions of Ms. Winslet's Revolutionary performance aren't trying to claim that all the shouting, yelling and crying she did in that film qualifies as subtle.

It's a matter of personal preference, of course - but the "focus group" results are telling. The Academy loves Kate Winslet, but I get why April Wheeler and Revolutuionary Road turn them off.
I found myself feeling sympathy for both Wheelers in RR, not so much because the 50s were stifling, but because they both chose to take the easy path instead of the difficult one and when they both get excited about the prospect of taking a chance, it's Frank who wimps out. In The Reader, it seems to be trying to bend over backward to make Hanna sympathetic in the second act when we find out she worked for the Nazis when it painted her as a more complex character in the first act when we don't know that. The film never even bothers to show if she has any attitude, positive or negative, toward Jews because that might interfere with the audience feeling that Michael's silence might have been worse than her job as a guard. Since I'm assuming, the twist isn't really a twist, how exactly did she read that job notice from the SS looking for camp guards anyway?
She said that she "heard" they were looking for people, so I think you can take that literally. The SS wasn't exactly very quiet about recruiting, and utilized all manner of media in order to do it. They owned the airwaves; If Hanna owned a radio, she would have heard recruitment ads.

The true horror of the Holocaust comes from the realization that many of the people who either helped to perpetrate it or enabled it to happen were not, in fact, anti-semitic. I don't think the film needs to spell out Hanna's motives - I think it's understood that she was one of the millions who got swept up in a popular movement that delivered Germany from its worst economic crisis in history and put people to work, without thinking too long and hard about what the movement was actually about. If Hanna was just a jew-hater guided by bigotry, would she be able to experience guilt? As you say "The film never even bothers to show if she has any attitude, positive or negative, toward Jews". It's that ambiguity that makes the nature of her crimes so unsettling - she killed people she may have had nothing against, simply because it was her job. Her chilling rationalization of the murder of her prisoners? "They were our responsibility."
The Reader just seem too calculated to me. While I've never been part of a married couple in the 1950s, I empathized much more with the Wheelers in RR. Perhaps it's just that it seemed more real to me since it wasn't based so much on plot contrivances and I could identify more with people with dreams who chickened out and took the easy path and lived to regret it once it was too late to rectify the situation.
I think The Reader is a flawed film - you're correct in noting that it certain respects, it does seem calculated (although, as outlined in my previous comment, I didn't note any real gaps in the basic logic).

As I say, I think The Academy nominated her for the right performance - in The Reader, she managed to bring very human dimension to a character that could have existed simply as a cipher, a monster, or some combination of both - and I found her progression from controlled inexpressivity to naked vulnerability entirely convincing (guilt has a way of catching up with you, no matter how hard you try to stay in complete command of your emotions). In Revolutionary Road, I think she was defeated to a certain extent by a character who was very, very hard to take, and consequently impossible to sympathize with. I do get what Revolutionary Road is about - I just wish it had made its points in a less heavy-handed way, and with fewer showy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style screamy death-match scenes. The breakfast scene at the end was amazing, though - it made me forgive a lot of what had come before.

Either way, I don't think it matters much which performance people think is better - people will be voting for her for both, and even if the trophy only has The Reader engraved on it, for all practical purposes she'll be winning for both.
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