The Reader




Much praise has been given to this adaptation by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel Der Vorleser, or The Reader - the German title has the sense of "reader-aloud". Everyone involved in this film is of the highest possible calibre, but their combined and formidable talents could not annul my queasiness that the question of Nazi war guilt and the death camps had been reimagined in terms of a middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy. This was, I admit, a problem I had with the original novel, and the movie treatment has not alleviated it. Its full, questionable nature emerges as the narrative unfolds; those fearful of spoilerism had better look away now.

Kate Winslet gives a typically intelligent performance as Hanna, a sturdy, unprepossessing woman in a provincial town in 1950s West Germany; she is employed as a tram conductor. One rainy day, she chances upon Michael (David Kross), a teenage boy shivering, throwing up and almost delirious with undiagnosed fever in the courtyard of her apartment building. With brisk and motherly can-do, she mops his brow, sloshes away the sick with a bucket of water and makes sure he gets home all right. Some months later, after a lonely recuperation, he comes back to her flat with a bunch of flowers to say thank you. They end up having a glorious affair, and their passionate lovemaking is accompanied with a ritual hardly less erotic - she loves him to read aloud to her from the classics: Chekhov, Homer, Rilke.

But one day, Hanna mysteriously vanishes and it is only many years later that Michael, now a law student, is astonished to see her again, older and greyer - in the dock. For Hanna was an SS camp guard at Auschwitz, one of half a dozen who committed a particular, atrocious mass murder, described in the bestselling memoir of a Holocaust survivor. Michael is horrified to hear testimony that Hanna liked to pick and choose "favourites" from among the prisoners who were forced to come to her quarters to read to her. It is only now that Michael realises that Hanna is illiterate. As an older man, played by Ralph Fiennes, Michael must come to terms with his feelings of horror at being violated, at having his own capacity for forming relationships stunted, mingled with pity and even tenderness for this vilified creature.

Hanna's condition is by no means a metaphor for the moral illiteracy of nazism. She is shown as being the only honest defendant among the guards on trial; she silences the presiding judge with a heartfelt: "What would you have done?" She only takes the blame for having written a mendacious SS report, and therefore having been the guards' ringleader, because disproving it would mean submitting a handwriting specimen - and Hanna is still ashamed of being illiterate.

The dramatic and emotional structure of the film insidiously invites us to see Hanna's secret misery as a species of victimhood that, if not exactly equivalent to that of her prisoners, is certainly something to be weighed thoughtfully in the balance, and to see a guilt-free human vulnerability behind war crimes. The movie boldly flashes backwards and forwards between Michael's youth and middle age, but there are no flashbacks to the Auschwitz era, so we cannot judge the central facts of Hanna's life and behaviour, and her continuing silence on the subject of antisemitism is never challenged. One sequence shows the older Michael wandering thoughtfully through the deserted but clean and tidy camp with its grim bunks and shower rooms. Were West German law students really allowed to do this? Unaccompanied?

In a final scene, Ralph Fiennes, as the older Michael, comes to New York to visit Ilana Mather, one of Hanna's surviving victims, bearing Hanna's savings in an old tea-can. (Alexandra Maria Lara plays Ilana as a young woman, with whom young Michael had exchanged a friendly grimace of sympathy in court; she is played in middle age by Lena Olin.) This is because Hanna wanted Ilana to have her money, to do with "as she wishes". Surely any sentient human being, no matter how burdened they might feel by a perverse obligation to carry out Hanna's wishes, would see what a grotesque insult that is? Michael's failure to acknowledge it is one of the most agonising, toe-curling aspects of the film.

He explains Hanna's illiteracy to Ilana and the woman asks sharply: "Is that an explanation? Or an excuse?" This highly pertinent question never gets a satisfactory answer from Michael or anyone else. Ilana does not take the money, but incredibly, she does accept the battered old tea-can because it resembles one she lost in the camps - thus legitimising this appalling payment in a far deeper, more emotional sense. The sheer fatuity of this exchange left me gasping.

Kate Winslet thus participates in the Hollywood tradition of having the Nazi played by a Brit; she is very good, and in fact no purely technical objections could conceivably be levelled in any direction. But I can't forgive this film for being so shallow and so obtuse on such a subject, and I can't accept it as a parable for war-guilt-by-association suffered by goodish Germans of the next generation. Under the gloss of high production value, under the sheen of hardback good taste, there is something naive and glib and meretricious. It left a very strange taste in my mouth.

agonising – bolesny

alleviate – koić, łagodzić

annul – unieważniać, anulować

atrocious – potworny, okrutny

capacity – możliwości, zdolność

conceivably – możliwe, niewykluczone

fatuity – głupota

formidable – ogromny, onieśmielający

glib – gładki; niewiarygodny

heartfelt – szczery, z głębi serca

insidiously – podstępnie, zdradliwie

level – wysuwać (np. zarzuty)

mendacious – kłamliwy, fałszywy

meretricious – powierzchowny; sztuczny

middlebrow – przeznaczony dla odbiorców o niewyszukanych gustach (o książce, filmie)

mingled with – zmieszany z

mop one’s brow – ocierać czoło

obtuse – głupi, tępy

pertinent – trafny, celny

queasiness – uczucie mdłości; niechęć, skrupuły

recuperation – rekonwalescencja

sentient – czujący, odczuwający

sheen – blask, połysk

slosh away – ochlapać

specimen – próbka

spoilerism – ujawnianie fabuły filmu przed czasem

stunted – karłowaty

sturdy – mocny, krzepki

toe-curling – zawstydzający

unprepossessing – nieatrakcyjny, niepociągający

vilified – oczerniony

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