Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Reader

Review: The Reel Women found this movie, compelling, intense, extremely well acted, and offering something for us to think about long afterward.

Michael, nearly 16 years of age, becomes terribly ill on the way home from school, and is helped by a woman he does not know. After confinement to bed for months with scarlet fever, he seeks out the woman to thank her. As happens sometimes in life, they are attracted and they fall into an affair. And there begins the story that will become heartbreaking on many levels.

Hannah, perhaps twice his age, is a quiet woman who lives alone and works as a ticket taker on the city trams. Michael is so enamored of her and the uninhibited sex they enjoy, he finds every opportunity to be with her, skipping school, lying about lateness for dinner. Hannah remains cool to him not necessarily discouraging the affair, but never encouraging it. Soon she asks about his schooling and when he talks of books, she asks him to read to her. Reading becomes the first part of every meeting.

The relationship is sometimes stormy and one day he finds she has moved and left no way of finding her. This coincides with her job offer of a promotion to an office job with the tram company. We are left for a time not knowing what happened to her.

The beginning of the movie includes a great deal of nudity and sexuality shown in a raw human and not necessarily romantic way.

***Spoilers ahead***

I don't want to reveal too much of the story here but will need to reveal some in analysis of the movie.

Let me begin by saying Kate Winslet, playing Hannah, does an incredible job of making you believe who she is. She is not portrayed as drop-dead beautiful, but in fact, somewhat plain. The women in our group discussing the movie over dinner afterward could not agree whether she was a sympathetic character or not. Half of us felt sorry for her situation, and the other half thought her to be a terrible woman - not because of the affair with the young boy, but because of what you learn later about her.

Ralph Fiennes, too, plays a role that breaks the heart - Michael grown up. Although the affair lasted just a summer, it changed his life. And when she appears in his life again, without planning or warning for either of them, the circumstance is too horriable and too devastating to his soul, and leads to a lifetime of further failed relationships and even a coolness toward his own daughter and parents.

David Kross, who plays the young Michael, is notable as well, progressing from a sex and love-obsessed young boy to a law student faced with a traumatic revelation.

While in law school, Michael's class attends a war crimes trial of six women, German SS guards, accused of being in charge of female prisoners of war, Jews, who were locked in a church when it catches fire. The guards fail to unlock the church and 600 prisoners die in the fire. To his shock, he sees Hannah is one of the guards.

In the trial we see a glimpse of the thinking of what has been written of extensively -- how people placed in a position of authority and given orders, will follow those orders without questioning right or wrong. In chilling honesty, Hannah tells how she and the other women routinely had to select prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz in order to make room for new arrivals at their camp.

In what is perhaps the most stunning development of the trial, we see Hannah make a choice to take the greatest blame for the deaths of the women rather than admit to another shame she has hidden her entire life - one that is certainly not illegal, and to us seems to far less significant than the horrible loss of life, but to her something for which she'd rather go to jail for a long time than admit to.

The Reel Women found this movie, compelling, intense, extremely well acted, and offering something for us to think about long afterward. Photography and casting combined to make stunning pictures of post-war Germany. Of particularly note are the straight-on shots of amazing faces that in themselves seemed to tell you all about the person.

We highly recommend this movie.

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