Before you groan about "yet another Holocaust movie", I want to point out that this one is surprisingly double-edged. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael Berg who, as a young man (played in flashback sequences by newcomer David Kross, b. 1990) has an affair with the much-older Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet, b. 1975 -- about right). Hannah, it turns out, had been a guard in a Nazi concentration camp and was implicated in the deaths of a hundred or so Jewish female prisoners. Michael, in possession of mitigating (though not exculpatory) evidence, mulls whether to come forward in her defense. Ultimately he doesn't. The movie is pretty explicit in showing that the same political correctness that prevented Germans from speaking up in behalf of the Jews in the '30s is now at work preventing people from speaking up for anybody accused of a war crime. And in so doing, the film invites the audience to have some sympathy for a very stupid, morally obtuse SS camp guard. You don't see this every day.
Be grateful for America's legal system. The "trial" in which Hannah is sentenced to life imprisonment is a Star Chamber kangaroo court in which the judges are also the prosecutors, and Hannah has no legal counsel. The miscarriage of justice that we witness is an excellent argument for our adversarial system.
A word about the affair. It occurred to me that Michael's sexual relationship with Hannah had on him exactly the effect that I would expect. He really loved her, not just in a lustful way, but in a thoroughly romantic, goofy beta kind of way. He's loyal to her, notwithstanding the designs of his female classmates. He contrives a cross-country bike trip with her. Hannah's emotion distance pains him, and the movie draws a pretty straight line between her betrayal (she disappears when she is afraid her illiteracy will be discovered) and Michael's lifelong difficulty maintaining relationships. This was a remarkably conservative theme.
A word about the sex. The Reader is the most genuinely erotic mainstream film I have seen since Exit to Eden 15 years ago. My impression is that, after the well-deserved failure of the movie Showgirls, Hollywood pretty much abandoned the art of the sex scene in any but the most non-erotic, comically absurd context. I'm not sure why this is, or even if my thumbnail history is correct. Perhaps with the widespread availability of cable and Internet, and with them the easy access to pornography, Hollywood decided that the market was getting squeezed.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Posted by Burke at 3:49 AM