Friday, February 6, 2009

Seeing The Reader

Some bits of Stephen Daldry’s film The Reader are set in Berlin, which is how I'll justify writing about it here. (Achtung: spoiler alert!)

I’m sure you know the story: A fifteen-year old boy named Michael Berg is seduced by a streetcar conductor, Hannah Schmitz, with whom he has a passionate summer affair. One special feature of their relationship is that she has him read books to her every time they meet. Years later (the Holocaust having happened in the meantime offscreen) he witnesses her trial in Nuremberg when he is a law student, and after she is sentenced to prison for her part in the deaths of 300 Jews when she was a guard at Auschwitz, he starts reading books into a tape recorder and sending them to her. During her years in prison she finally learns to read and write. Berg is asked by prison officials to help her when she is to be released, and he reluctantly agrees, but just before her release she kills herself in her cell.

I found the film terribly disappointing, but was interested to see that it disappoints in ways quite different than the bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink on which it was based.

The main weakness of Schlink’s novel is that his descriptions are consistently so weak (or irrelevant), his characters so little fleshed-out that the book winds up seeming like a few big ideas clunking down the stairs. The storyline itself, though, is fascinating material, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how it would play out on film.

The film, however, is plagued by issues just as serious, though it does manage to correct some of the book’s flaws. The lush imagery of the film and the excellent performances by Kate Winslet (Hannah) and David Kross (Michael as a boy) fill the world with a nicely shot vocabulary of gesture and image that makes us believe in the characters and their lives. There are other improvements as well. Schlink would have us believe, for example, that the first book that Hannah sits down to read once she has painstakingly attained literacy is Elie Wiesel’s Night. I really don’t think so. The film handles her quest for literacy much more plausibly, treating it not as some abstract way to make amends for her crimes (after all, she does seem to feel she was just following orders and had no other choice), but as an attempt to recreate in fantasy the time in her past when she was loved and had her lover read to her: using Michael’s tape as a guide, she spells her way through Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lapdog,” a story he read aloud to her as a boy (and which touchingly reflects their own relationship). The Odyssey is another thematically relevant choice, especially the opening passage referring to the “twists and turns” of the hero’s life that is read several times in the course of the film. (They read Robert Fagles's 1996 translation, which has been pasted into an old-looking cover; never mind that the choice of translation is anachronistic; after all, they're "really" supposed to be reading it in German - in the Johann Heinrich Voss translation, perhaps?)

The movie handily provides some shots of young Hannah avoiding reading: refusing to look at a book Michael hands her, asking him to order lunch for both of them so she doesn’t have to read the menu (though unless I misheard he orders a BLT – what? In Germany? I hope I misheard). These shots then are used in flashback to show us Michael’s thought process when he realizes during her trial that she is not only illiterate but is so ashamed of the fact that she would rather accept a disproportionately long jail sentence than admit it.

And the large number of prison-library books in her cell is used to powerful effect in the film when she stacks them up high atop her table to make a platform she will use to kill herself. It’s as if the knowledge she has gained from reading has now enabled her to make the decision to take her own life, but there is nothing heavy-handed about the use of this image. I was also touched by the careful way she takes off her shoes before she dies – she doesn’t bother to unlace them, but she does place them neatly side-by-side on the floor.

In all these ways, the film outshines the novel on which it was based. But then it fails in quite different ways, primarily because of the script. The sections of the film that show Michael and Hannah in 1939 don’t contain much talking unless you count the reading-aloud. But the parts featuring middle-aged Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) are all talk, and the dialogue grates and jars with one sententious, heavy-handed line after another. I don’t know what David Hare (who wrote the script) was thinking. Fiennes winds up having to speak the bulk of these lines, and he just can’t pull them off. It can’t be easy to be playing a character who’s supposed to be painfully repressed—as he casually announces to his 20ish daughter over dinner, causing her to burst into sudden tears of relief, pain and understanding [?]—and at the same time be asked to utter all these cockamamie lines. Maybe an actor of Donald Sutherland’s caliber could have made it work, but Fiennes serves up his homilies like he’s getting paid for it.

The script’s weakness is also seen during the law-school sequences, particularly in a seminar when a fellow-student of Michael’s is so outraged by the hypocrisy of the Nuremberg trials that he begins to shout. His rant makes no sense - in a context where it needs to. First he says how ridiculous it is that a handful of low-level officials are being tried with great pomp and circumstance when most of the rest of the German population is guilty as well. Then he says he wants to shoot Hannah and the other guards. Or does he mean shoot all the Germans? In the context of the scene, it seems that he is supposed to be serving as a foil to Michael’s wordless brooding (25-year-old Berg displays indecision worthy of a Hamlet). But his speech remains incoherent, and so the scene remains unilluminating, though at least the law professor is brilliantly played by Bruno Ganz.

Speaking of whom—since he’s a real German, as is David Kross—it’s quite odd that all the actors in the film speak English with German accents (real or simulated) passim except for Fiennes, who just sounds like a Brit. Did someone decide the inconsistency just doesn’t matter? It does.

Perhaps the worst dialogue of all is in the scene when Michael goes to visit an Auschwitz survivor who testified at Hannah’s trial after the war. He brings her a little tin of money—Hannah’s savings, which she asked be given to this woman. The relative paltriness of the bequest (seven thousand marks and change) is set off by the luxuriousness of the woman’s New York apartment. But then the two begin an inane dialogue studded with a few profundities (“Nothing comes out of Auschwitz”) and the scene quickly starts making no sense at all.

The film ends with a gesture that could have worked stunningly if Michael's daughter were anything but a cipher, but we know virtually nothing about her. So it doesn’t quite make sense that when he drags her out to a village cemetery in the rain (a village where he took Hannah on a bicycle outing one happy day) to show her Hannah’s grave, she actually appears delighted that he has brought her all this way to visit the grave of someone she’s never heard of, in the rain no less. And then we hear Berg’s voice beginning to tell his daughter his story as they walk away—and the storytelling is a lovely gesture (and counterpoint to all the stories of other people he’s read aloud all his life), but the film hasn’t created the psychological context to support it, so it winds up just feeling random. What’s more, the dates on the gravestone read 1922-1988, which would make Hannah just 17 years old in 1939 when she and Berg first meet (we see the date inscribed in the copy of The Odyssey he was reading that year in school). So suddenly she’s just two years his senior? Uh, no.

Ach. This material could have made such a good story. What a shame that neither novel nor film turned out better than this.


Blithe Spirit said...

Yes, this review neatly summed up a lot of the vague feelings of incompleteness I felt about the film but I couldn't quite put my finger on the problems. I just never was drawn into the film the way, for example, I was in Hare's other recent rendition of a book - The Hours - which I loved.
But as you write, part of the problem stems from the novel itself. Have you read Schlink's Homecoming? I felt that was a much more complex novel dealing with some of the same themes, but delves far more into the characters' inner lives and motivations.
I'll still be rooting for Winslet at Oscar time though, even though in an ideal situation, the actors awards would go for performances in great, lasting films as well.

Susan Bernofsky said...

Thanks for this, I should check out Homecoming! Winslet is such a superb actress, I couldn't agree more.