Thursday, January 29, 2009
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Director: Stephen Daldry
Runtime: 124 min.
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.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 3:10 AM