Thursday, January 29, 2009


Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Director: Stephen Daldry
Runtime: 124 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama, Romance

(The review below is an example why I believe writing and analyzing a film is as great a joy as watching the film itself. I have written the review over a period of two days, seldom does that happen, and what you would read below is my little journey to actually understand not just the film but to realize and put to words the emotions I felt. I’m not sure if The Reader is a special film, but right now it feels like one. I began in a haze that I couldn’t understand, leave alone putting to words, but I ended up clearer and nearer to a great film. For that I thank a fellow cineaste for it was the conversation with her that greatly helped me. It was a staccato of short sharp ideas, a verifiable crossfire of precise questions and implied answers, and sometimes that is all that is needed to understand your ideas, and that of the films. I guess credit ought to be given where it is due, and this is as much my review as it is hers. And I seek to thank her again.)

        Running upto the awards season it was all about Mr. Scott Rudin. Probably the shrewdest brain in Hollywood, Mr. Rudin’s incredible success at pitching movies just in time for recognition and strategizing their campaigns is quite well known. The Reader was his bet this time, and the film that was ignored at its expense and postponed for next year was The Road, leading to a whimper of a protest across the internet. The Reader had a bit of a troubled production, and there were reports (citation needed) that the film might not be ready by the year end. It did, and Mr. Rudin won his bet again, and The Reader has been nominated for the Academy Award Best Picture category.
        It has been real hectic for the past couple of months, often watching more than a single movie on a weekday. Such was the frame of mind with which I set myself to watch The Reader this morning, having a feeble idea of its history and a hundred or so pages of the Bernhard Schlink novel wandering somewhere deep within me. I had parted with the book midways for some reason I couldn’t gather, except for knowing that it was an intriguing tale that I rather chose to watch and feel. And I watched, and I felt. Often I find it increasingly difficult to capture the nature of the emotions stirred in words, for they themselves elude any sense of comprehension. Yet, this is the time to desperately seek a description for them in the hope it might resonate within you too. A sense of meditation? A delicate yet wrenching feeling of despair? A pure and serene sense of exhilaration? I had felt it elsewhere, and it belonged to the wee hours of the morning. A sense of elation in the face of gloom? Yes, yes, that is what I had felt. That elation, I had felt it before, and as I watched The Reader, I was feeling it all over again trying to remember where. And the end credits rolled, and I realized what I had overlooked for so long. The director was Stephen Daldry, and there was an ‘Ah! That figures’ moment followed by a lengthy stretch of ‘I knew it’. I walked outside to get the fresh air, and remembered yet again how Mr. Daldry’s previous film The Hours is one quite close to my heart. But then, you needn’t remind yourself, for these are moments in one’s film-going experience that always stay and linger there and thereabouts, always addressing and influencing the perception of other films. Not great moments in anyway, but personal moments.
        I’m one who is often put off by the aesthetic glossy productions (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) from British filmmakers (Mr. Joe Wright who for sure is no genius any which way), yet I would seek to argue with anybody who believe such production values themselves make the film seem artificially tasteful and an object of sleek design, or that such techniques display an innate tendency towards end of the year award pandering. For a filmmaker as precise as Mr. Daldry, with his carefully chosen angles to frame his action, he exhibits a remarkable life in his filmmaking that does ram against you but instead seeps into you. Life in his visual style isn’t borrowed from a moving camera, whose effect often feels bullish. Mr. Daldry, much like Mr. Stephen Frears (The Queen), has a style that feels like the rhythms of some piece of music. The trick might be simple – frame static shots, and modulate the frequency of edits to the tune of the background score to generate the exhilarating momentum of montage that has an elevating effect. Mr. Daldry used it to underscore the crescendo of the desperation of the women in The Hours as he blended their tales at different junctures, and here he uses it to a swell the re-blossoming of a once broken romance. But what it needs more than anything is a deep understanding of the subject matter, and structuring it in a way so as to lend it the tone he desires. Mr. Wright, in last year’s Atonement did some fidgeting around trying to employ innovation via moving shots to the tune of the clack-clack of a typewriter, but it proved to be clever rather than conveying the emotional state of the moment and the film. Mr. Daldry, on the other hand, seems to be in possession of a marvelous understanding of emotion and its many layers, and in The Reader he has crafted quite a shattering motion picture.
        Yet shattering how, and shattering why? Here, I would consider it quite necessary to mention that I have now been writing this review for two days. I have been attempting to hold to threads that have promised me a greater understanding of the emotions and ideas that are floating underneath this film, yet they have proved elusive. The Reader has been haunting me, and I have been wading through a lot of murk, with only my emotional reaction guiding me. I have read a few reviews, and they seem to be written by close-minded critics hell bent to judge the film on their pre-conceived notions. Some mention phrases like ‘Nazi Porn’ and cite arguments as ‘Do we really need another Holocaust film’, and dismiss the film on the grounds that it ‘asks us to pity a death-camp guard’. All I can do is shake my head and be disappointed. Some say The Reader is locked within itself. I ask, how many of us have faced a predicament this film poses and have lived under the burden of a past its characters carry. Not many, might be your answer. Allow me to brief you with the premise, and then let us answer it again. Of course, I’ll touch only the broad frameworks, and no specifics will be mentioned. The Reader is a film of moments that build up a tragedy, and I believe a little here and there with the plot wouldn’t necessarily spoil matters.
        We follow three timeframes, but unlike The Hours where the three flowed simultaneously through a narrative and thematic logic each addressing the other, we move through the time frames here with no apparent logic. That there’s one, and an emotional one, which one might realize and feel upon close introspection of the central character Michael Berg (Mr. Fiennes) and the nostalgia that surrounds his romance with a middle aged woman Hanna Schmitz (Ms. Winslet) is something I would choose to discuss later.
        It is 1995, and Michael Berg is an advocate of great repute in Berlin. We see his apartment, and there feels a sense of reticence in its smooth silent hallways so much so that a footstep echoes. The only sense of an upbeat life lay in a woman who we learn was a one-night stand. She leaves, and the apartment and Michael feel lost again. Lost in the past, as it turns out.
        It is 1958, and we see a fifteen year old Michael (Mr. Kross) on his way back from school, visibly uneasy inside a streetcar. He is sick, he gets down a stop before his own, and walks and throws up on the road. It is raining, and he is drenched. It is all too much for him, and he rests inside a building, only to throw up yet again. A woman comes over, washes the vomit away, cleans him, and takes him home. She is Hanna, and when Michael recuperates from the scarlet fever he contracted, his first meeting with Hanna to extend his gratitude proves to be the beginning of a strange relationship. It begins with a harmless bath, which leads to sex, and lots of it over a span of a summer. And there’s literature in there too. Mr. Daldry, much like the relation between Virginia and Leonard Woolf in The Hours, lends this affair a rather moving blend of romance and hopelessness. She calls him kid, and for him she’s destined to be everything. For him, the relation is all about being with her, in her arms. A safe haven. For her it is more about the reading. She asks him to read books, and she listens, and she’s moved to tears or she’s repulsed by the bold passages of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The rules of the affair are all set by her, and he merely obliges. “Read to me first, kid”, she says, “Then we make love.” In that tender vulnerable age, he is all hers. And on his birthday, she vanishes from his life. He has no clue where, and fate shatters him even before he is made. Everything that will pile on now will be upon an inherently broken foundation.
        It is 1966, and Michael is a law student. As a part of his curriculum, he visits a courtroom witnessing a high profile case. There’re six women in there being tried for Nazi war crimes, and Hanna is one of them. Nothing can take away from him the deep emotions he harbors for this woman, and as is revealed during the proceedings, nothing can take away from the fact that she committed horrific acts. The Reader places Michael in a deep moral conundrum here, which I leave you to discover, and where I part ways with the plot.
        I mentioned above the non-linear narration might seem to be following no apparent logic. There has been criticism, labeling it needlessly complicated and choppy. But consider Michael, and for a moment consider Leonard Shelby from Memento. It could be said both share a similar emotional attachment to a past where their souls have been locked forever. Even in our minds, memories don’t age according to the rules of time, and neither are they catalogued according to the year. What catalogues them, and what distinguishes the close from the distant ones is how potently they have affected us. I remember my twelfth grade, which I completed in 2000, and it feels like a long time has passed, but the memories of the World Cup Cricket semi-final between Australia and South Africa feel painfully close and clear. In a way, Mr. Hare’s (The Hours) script could be considered as essentially following a linear structure, and in a way for Michael the past is just as present as present itself.
        What lay in the past, apart from a broken romance? A decision was made in 1966; an attempt was made in 1988. A decision that involves conscience; an attempt that rekindles a broken romance. A decision that would decide the fate of the romance; an attempt to seek forgiveness and redemption. During the summer of romance, in 1955, Michael merely obliged and both the initial attempts and the important decisions of their affair were in Hanna’s hands. The roles are reversed, he is in possession of a secret of hers known only to him. And that secret is at the heart of both the decision and the attempt.
        I speak of the decision, and I speak of 1966. And I’m reminded of lawyers refusing to take up the case of Mohammad Ajmal citing ethical grounds. The Reader poses questions of the same nature before us, and Michael and asks him to make the decision. Michael chooses to meet Hanna. And as he walks through the prison yard, Mr. Daldry in a brilliant and heartbreaking piece of filmmaking, mirrors it to an earlier scene where an overwhelmed Michael is shown walking through a Nazi concentration camp. Guilt and grief engulf him.
        I speak of the attempt, and I speak of 1988. It involves the re-blossoming of the romance. It also involves the revelation of Hanna as a person. Transformation would be quite a wrong word here, just as it was in the case of Hauptmann Wiesler in The Lives of Others. I’m fascinated here by the comparison I make, because it poses one very important question. You see, through fictions of dystopian societies like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 depict a life without books, paintings, music or any form of art, and hence a life devoid of emotion. My friend is so true when she suggests that a piece of soulful art always moved Hanna. She sits in a church and a choir is singing Bach, and Hanna is moved to tears. She is moved when Michael reads to her. Emotions were always within her, yet she was never able to grasp what they meant. In a way, it mirrored how I found myself after the film. Literature reveals those emotions for her. She understands herself better.
        But then, I think of The Lives of Others. Hauptmann, a Stasi, discovers himself through listening to the life of a couple. He discovers himself through life, and not through the words on paper. When I think of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and the assumption that art is the route to emotion, I wonder if that assumption is an elitist feeling. One of self-righteousness. But then where does true art come from. And then, does art make you overtly sensitive to issues which you otherwise might have brushed aside in nonchalance. I’m speaking of kitsch here. Think about it. And if you wish to discuss I would gratefully oblige.
        I have been long appalled at the hackneyed manner in which Hollywood approaches its Nazi characters (Schindler’s List), pre-implicating them even without giving them a chance. An assumption is made that they are evil, which means to say they’re monsters and any shred of emotions in them ought to be looked with a deal of cynicism. But then portraying a fully realized Nazi character it is a tall order. Moralists jump the gun and start attacking the attempt at humanizing a beast. Such is the nature of many a criticism for The Reader, which believe the film seeks pity for Hanna. That is incorrect. Mr. Daldry doesn’t seek pity but asks us to understand her. Hanna is merely a person who is good at whatever she does. At the time of her affair with Michael she is working as a conductor and she receives a promotion for her good work. That doesn’t justify her. But then, morality works one way when considered for an individual and a totally different and a diminishing way when considered for millions. When everyone around you is jumping the traffic signal, we all follow suit. And this isn’t a justification.
        And neither does Ms. Winslet’s performance give any. Hanna doesn’t betray an ounce of self-pity, and even though she’s vulnerable from inside, her exterior puts an altogether haughty display of self-respect, but subtly and nonchalantly so. Much of the film has her nude, but she isn’t pandered as an object of desire. The film is sensual, and real in the way it frames and lights Ms. Winslet. When she is listening to Bach we feel her welling up. It is a remarkable performance of conflict – between her insecurities and her refusal to appear weak or inferior – and it is probably her most layered. As film critic James Berardinelli mentions in his review of the film here, “In the real world, there were probably more Hannas than the demonic Nazis we are used to seeing in movies as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List.”
        Late in the film Michael visits a Holocaust survivor, and admits to his strange kinky relation with Hanna. She asks him – “Did Hanna Schmitz acknowledge the effect she’d had on your life? Michael replies – “She’d done much worse to other people.” There, that reply, is a reflection of an altogether different generation from that of Hanna. One which reeks of self-pity, and is ashamed of the past. It is almost a cliché – the eternal German guilt. But then, a whole generation was in conflict with its past. Mr. Fiennes’ is a remarkable casting decision. An actor of a reserved disposition, he embodies a whole generation but without any overt signals. His tragedy feels his alone (not any ‘clever’ allusion), and that is when we feel it too. As Roger Ebert says – The more specific a film is the more universal it becomes. Young Mr. Kross’ performance is the perfect foil to Mr. Fiennes, and when we see the weak and defenseless younger Michael (Mr. Kross) we understand why the older Michael is how he is.
        There occurs a great moment towards the end of the film. Hanna and Michael meet each other for the first time since she walked out of his life, and it is a masterpiece of acting. When a whole life is spent with the memories of somebody, and when the moment arrives to meet them, our eyes seek that image we have from the past. It is an odd few moments, when our mind and our eyes are coming to terms with that image we have and the real person we see. When their eyes meet each other, forget everything and just look at the acting here. See the love and goodness in the eyes of Mr. Fiennes, and the sheer astonishment in Ms. Winslet’s eyes. It is a moment of great tragedy, one this romance was destined to. He has been spent coming to terms with the shame he feels for her, and the love in his heart. She wonders if he understands her. Maybe she wants to move on, away from her past. But does he want to?
        The Reader is a film about holocaust, yes, but it is also a film about a tender relationship. It is kinky, yes, but heartfelt. It is not about big moments and heavy-handed messages. Instead the film builds on its small, individual moments carefully and compassionately creating a story and then seeking to find peace for a man. And to know and understand a woman who could be anyone of us.


srikanth said...

exactly, exactly. This is what I am feeling right now... When I first saw the film, I thought it was quite badly made - that it could never decide what it wanted to be. Then I read one of Ebert's very few insightful reviews. Damn, I started to make sense. I still thought it was a great script ruined by bad direction. I thought Daldry could never punctuate what he wanted. I went to the film again. Scrolled it all the way. it all seemed to gain weight. Now it stands out to be one of the best this year for me. Funny how your opinion could change in the matter of a week. Very well verbalized review this one is.

"more than a single movie on a weekday" - man, do you even sleep? what a cinephile you are!!!

srikanth said...

you could name that "fellow cineaste" you mentioned...v

Aravind G said...

Yes. I feel art is a route to emotion. I have read books and I have observed people. Art expresses and people implement. Although the implementation is a broken down, sometimes contradictory version of what art expresses. And that is somewhat fascinating. Art helps you to understand why people act in a certain manner, sometimes gives you reasons. These reasons change your emotions than what you would normally have.

Aravind G.

man in the iron mask said...

As for the review, thanks man. It is one of my personal favorites, and I enjoyed writing it as much as I was moved watching the film.

Satish Naidu
Actually, I think so too Aravind. And probably art makes us a little too introspective, I guess. The ‘politically correct’/ ‘hypocrite’ part of me wanted to believe that life teaches us a lot more than art, but I know deep down that art actually makes us realize what we’ve learnt.

You say - reasons change your emotions than what you would normally have.
I ask you – do we become too sensitive? As in being sensitive as an obligation? Some say the meadows and the mountains move them. I say such beauty bypasses me. I find them utterly clichéd.

But then, I’m analyzing myself here, and as a result I always act as I should rather than how I would, so that I do not fail in my own eyes. Does that make me a better person? Or does that make me a dishonest person. When The Joker says – civilized people – I guess he’s referring to us. For reasons you would understand, I keep coming back to nonchalance.

Aravind G. said...

Now here are two perspectives:
When I say “reasons change your emotions than what you would normally have” : Normal refers to majority here. Or cliché as you call it. I would not go to the extent of US and Them kind of thing.But, When I feel the Meadows and Mountains I actually do not get moved. But I feel different.. Just for the experience. I like the air around. But the happiness is because of what I experience rather than what I see(the appearance part of it I mean). It is clichéd because most of us have never been able to describe what makes us happy when we see a meadow or a mountain. Hence we call the Meadow and Mountain moving. If somebody went on to explain what is moving, then we may have ten different perspectives.
Personally, Honesty is a parameter which I keep to myself. It is mostly convenient and sometimes difficult. But its better to feel honest than be called honest.
Joker’s Civilized people is correct. It refers to us and it may refer to himself as well. Its just that his idea of civilized was never tested. I actually felt the concept of LIVING WITHOUT RULES a bit overrated. Just by saying this he was adhering to the rule of not living without rules. And I would like a situation where this rule is tested.

man in the iron mask said...

Yes. Feeling the air around is experiencing it. Living life.
But that doesn’t make the beauty of the mountains and meadows a fact etched in stone. I think that is why we never can explain why it moves us, because all we’re seeing is an image.

Honesty of course is a personal matter. When I say dishonest, I mean being dishonest to me. There’re situations where we react how we should, and it isn’t necessarily as satisfying as how we would. Aravind, do you believe in – To be is to do? I’m speaking of a threshold limit here, which when reached might break that barrier that holds us from getting into the would region. Maybe not being aware of ourselves always has us in the would region, where we do not feel burdened by self-pity and guilt.

That state of being aware is where I believe art comes in. It contains emotions that have been themselves calibrated by creators in the should region. How many times do we come across an art where everything inside is laid threadbare before us, I wonder.
Now here I ask, when we’re aware, do we act in a specific way that conceals who we ‘truly’ are? That is why I find The Joker fascinating. The joke’s on us. But yes, he was never tested. Maybe that is because he was a natural reaction to a force that believed in making rules, and one that believed in an authoritarian society. Anarchy is inevitable then.

Aravind G. said...

I agree with you on the image part of mountains and meadows. I can love that feeling but the image may not have a lot to offer.
You know, that barrier you are talking about actually stands on both sides. On the side of should and would. When the barrier on the side of should breaks, the result might be as disastrous as the joker. I like the perspective “a natural reaction to a force that believed in making rules, and one that believed in an authoritarian society”.
Natural reactions vary from person to person. Hence, the should also differ from person to person. To remove this ambiguity and preserve the sanity of life, a common “should” called rules are there.

I believe all of us hang between these should and would. We are true to neither. As joker says, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. This process is actually moving from should to would. Joker entered that would. Does this mean he did not have a should ever in life? Doesn’t that make not having an origin story for joker a matter of convenience?

I am reading THE ROAD. In a post apocalyptic world people are eating each other. But that is survival. Can you afford to have a should there?

The biggest advantage of self awareness is that you know the reasons for what you are doing. You know when you are acting conveniently. I believe TO BE IS TO DO. But how many times can we afford to do what we actually believe? Hence, you get defined differently for what you do. My English teacher used to say A man has three personalities. What others believe he is, what he believes he is and what he really is. I fear all the three just end up to be a maze of words.

man in the iron mask said...

Here’s a what if predicament I want to place you in.

Supposing a sniper rifle is laid in your hands, and you’re dropped in a land filled with people far removed from you, and at a distance far away. What would stop us from exercising our fascinations with a sniper rifle? ‘Us’ is, me and you.

Now consider somebody (and here again I’m drawing from art rather than from life) who has been there and done that. Maybe he has been disillusioned. What would stop him then? Art or life itself?

Aravind G. said...

Just the plain idea that a life is more important than anybody’s idea or a fascination. For me the idea of life is just to breathe and feel the beauty around you. A life is a creation. A Creation does not have a category. I don’t deserve to destroy what I have created. Violence, to me would be a last resort and only for my defence or survival. This is my should. You know in my school there were people who used to bully others. Just for fun or fascination. I would term that a weakness.
My idea of fun depending on others. Using a life as a toy.

You know, the second question is difficult. Art has also acted as a mechanism for camouflage. It has added layers of abstraction to the true idea of existence. Added perspectives to what could have been a simple concept. Art is a double edged sword. It can disillusion you or it can free your mind. So depends what kind of art you are referring to here.
Life (without art) is actually framed by experiences. These experiences are again affected by art in some manner or other. Hence, if a person who has done it once for his fascination or disillusionment would do it again unless he has experienced something which might stop him from doing it. Examples may be a personal loss. This is assuming a person is completely away from art.

Life as we call it now, is a derivation of art. It is just an interpretation of how people should act, by a person who thought that this would lead to a constructive society.
It is just that it was then weathered around and made convenient. The interpretations became the concepts.

man in the iron mask said...

Srikanth, a man has to do what he has to do. The whole of my day is pointing to those two hours I will spend with my movie. How would I ever be able to sleep without it?

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Your blog is making a great and greater read day-by-day. Reviews and the comments too. Thanks to Slumdog.
Anyway, I'll try not read the reviews before watching actual movies. So slow down buddy. But can't help it. Try writing a bit poorer. Just kidding. Keep writing.

man in the iron mask said...

Slow down. Noooo? The virus is all over my body, inside and outside. All I can do now is infect everybody around. :)

And as for the comments? No, not Slumdog. Maybe The Reader, Srikanth, Aravind and you. But definitely not Slumdog. That pretentious film I hate, and all it can bring out is various forms of disgust.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Commenting on the wrong post but it's convenient. Watched Akin's The edge of heaven yesterday. Savored it. A sublime film so at peace with itself (even in troubled times), so aware of it's habitat. Kinda an antidote for Slumdog. A film that drags the audience through image after image when one would cry, hold on! Don't run.
Anyway, TEOH, the story of relationship, of friendship and of humanity. It starts working once the end credits roll.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

"It has added layers of abstraction to the true idea of existence. Added perspectives to what could have been a simple concept. Art is a double edged sword."
I'm considering it in my own POV. I see Jesse and Celine wandering on streets of Paris and I long to go there. Have a cuppa coffee in that small cafe in Paris. I see IN BRUGES and I long to be there in that beautiful square in Bruges and I see the edge of heaven and the sheer atmosphere of Istanbul mesmerizes me. I see an American village in Minesota in SWEET LAND and I miss a heartbeat. Is this illusion? Will I be disappointed if a actually visit these place? Are these the layers of abstraction Aravind is referring to? Or just red herrings? :)

Anonymous said...

is this film about a doomed romance, or about morality.

i am trying to say that this film is a moral preaching, in the guise of romance.

now here is my points.
you mentioned that scene in us. where finnes says ' she had done worse to others'

this dialogue is the key of the film. its not just the character saying it. its the standpoint of the film. for this culmination whole story is told.

film seems to be preaching that - "when for the first time kid sees hana changing clothes. she could have stopped it there. but instead she took it further. and look where it ended.

and this behavior of hers is cited as a rational for her behavior in holocaust.

she ended up the way she ended up, not because of she was able to feel tender. nope. she ended up the way she ended up because she was not morally strong."

film is not about romance, film is about bad consequences of weak morality.

MaG said...

Hi Sathish,
Thats a very good review.I was searching for a positive review in the internet for this movie. I may not agree with most of your reviews but this one I have to say we both had seen the movie in same screen. The movie for me never pretends to be a right or wrong movie, like some one said in the above comments it may be some thing with morality, nevertheless Kate had given a fantastic performance.I never noticed the angles or the shots or compositions or eye lines or anything else just the story how it was portrayed and how well it was performed. Special thanks for the way you mentioned the last conversation between Kate and Fiennes, I don't remember when I cried for a movie before this one. I cried like Hanna (well.. to an extent .. Male ego :) )