THE READER (2008) 

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Kate Winslet
Ralph Fiennes
David Kross
Lena Olin
Jeanette Hain
Susanne Lothar
Vijessna Ferkic
Bruno Ganz
Volker Bruch
Florian Bartholomai
Max Mauff
Alexandra Maria Lara

Stephen Daldry



Time: 124 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama/Romance

Won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Winslet). Nominations for Best Cinematography, Directing, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

SYNOPSIS: Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive sexual affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany's Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: What should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust?

BOTTOM LINE: I'd watch Kate Winslet read the phone book and her intense and unrelenting performance in this film is truly amazing. She makes a woman who has destroyed the lives of almost everyone she touches an actual human being, which believe me is an impressive task. Like Michael Berg, we never really learn much about Hanna, until her horrible past is revealed. She is clearly a woman trying to hide something, who uses Michael to bring a small bit of pleasure to her unhappy life. That she takes advantage of his naivité and attraction to her, shows her lack of judgement or concern for what this relationship might do to such a young man. He likes having a dirty little secret and when she aks him to read to her, it bolsters his confidence, makes him feel like her equal and deepens his love for her. These scenes are starkly intimate and slowly heartbreaking as the viewer knows there can be no future for this relationship.

Hanna's sudden disappearance brings him brutally back to reality and ruins his chances of every truly opening his heart to another woman. What makes his even pain worse is her reappearance in his life as a defendent in one of the largest Nazi war crime trials to take place in postwar Germany. As a law student, he is forced to hear and judge the actions of a woman he still can't help but love. He's desperate to understand how she could do such evil things and yet not be a monster, but a regular, average woman. This is the crux of the film and something – after much reading of my own – I've often pondered myself. How could the general German populace turn away from the horrors of the Nazis and in many cases even help the regime in committing mass murder? It seems impossible to believe this cultured, intelligent country could let something so brutally tragic happen. And yet, history shows it did. (Whether you believe it was half a million or six, that's still an awful lot of purposefully dead people to account for.)

"It doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter what I feel. The dead are still dead."

When Hanna's questioned about why she joined the Nazi party, her answer is simply one of her own survival. As a work camp guard she did what her job required of her, what she was paid to do. Unlike her fellow defendents, she's actual honest about her actions which shocks the judges. She doesn't understand their horror and asks "What would you have done?" It's an easy out for those of us not faced with these situations to say that we would never have towed the line and helped kill all those people, but I have my doubts. Good people do terrible things every day to protect themselves and those they love and if it came down to your family or someone else's I think most of us would find ourselves doing unspeakable things to survive. Hanna has a shameful secret which is supposed to be her motivation, but just because she has a good reason (for her) for her actions that doesn't make what she did acceptable. It just makes her a very flawed human being, who made terribly cruel choices in her life.

Which I guess is the problem some people have with this story. They don't want us sympathizing with the Nazis. Believe me you won't. Hanna is never for one minute a sympathetic creature. What this film shows us is what lengths people will go to to save their own lives. It isn't pretty and is definitely a slippery slope. What happened to the Jews didn't occur overnight and by the time most of the populace realized relocation meant death, it was too late to fight, so they turned a blind eye and did what they had to do to protect themselves. It's a national shame, I'm not sure will or should ever go away. Hanna seems remourseless, but she's actually not looking for forgiveness or compassion. She knows she doesn't deserve them. Michael needs her to be better than she is to combat his shame for loving her, but that's not how life works. In the end, he does what he can to show he cares, helping her overcome her personal demon, but even that's not enough to save her from herself. THE READER is a riveting and unrelenting tale that will have you questioning your own motivations and personal character in deep and uncomfortable ways.

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