Emmanuel Itier: David, how old were you when you auditioned?
Stephen Daldry: You were 16, weren’t you, when I first auditioned you?
David Kross: Yes, 16.
EI: How much English did you know?
DK: Some years of English from my school in Germany.
EI: You learned more English as you worked on this?
DK: Yes, I was working with a dialect coach and I had a huge preparation, and it was great to learn English. It was with an accent, how to speak it, and it was a great opportunity. That’s the reason why I did the film, actually.
SD: [Laughs] To learn English?
EI: When did you read the book, and what was your reaction to it?
DK: I was thinking, "I have to do sex scenes in the film," and I was very nervous about it. It was a great book and I read it a lot and always saw something different when I was reading it. It’s a great book.
SD: Did you read the script or the book first (to David)?
DK: The book first.
EI: Did Kate [Winslet] make you comfortable doing the sex scenes?
DK: Yes. Also, Stephen good because he knew what he wanted to have and was very clear about it, and we talked a lot about it, and it was very helpful. I was very nervous because it’s a very weird situation, especially for a 16-year-old boy...or an 18-year-old boy, at that point. [Laughs] She’s very experienced. She’s very professional. She’s very secure about it, and that helped a lot.
EI: Stephen, you came to the project through Anthony Minghella; and what attracted you to the material?
SD: I read the book. A friend of mine had given me the book. I found out that Anthony had the rights and he was an old friend of mine, and I asked him to allow me to direct it. At that point, he wanted to direct it himself. It took him a few years to say, "I’ve got so many projects to get off the ground, it’ll probably take me a few more years to get around to this, so why don’t you have a go at it now?" So I teamed up with David Hare, who had always wanted to do the book and write the screenplay. Apart from the emotional impact of the book, I’d spent a lot of time as a kid growing up learning German in a little town outside of Hamburg, called Bergedorf. In later life, I spent a lot of time in Berlin. I’d become fascinated with post-war Germany, and Berlin in particular. It seemed to be a country on the fault-line of the 20th century in lots of ways. The city reminds me of Troy insomuch that the layers of history are available on every street corner. It’s a city rebuilt three times this (past) century, the last great rebuilding having been finished since the wall came down. I’d been fascinated about its moral values and its struggle to come to terms with the past and find a way of continuing and continuing well, given the fact that it’s obviously a country that’s been through a post-genocidal situation.
EI: The second generation, 46-64, and the generation past that, say (David’s) age, still have the mindset of the guilt and having to make atonement for what happened...
SD: Certainly for Mr. [Bernhard] Schlink, who wrote the book, there is a real sense for his generation. The big question of the book is how is it for people of his generation...how is it possible to love your parents, your pastors, your teachers, or indeed, in the circumstance used in the book actually, a lover who’s been involved in such a terrible past, whether as a direct perpetrator or as a bystander? How is it possible to love? What happened in ’68, within the German context, is very different to what happened in Paris or New York. It was a generation that tore the country apart with the arrival of the Badenhoff and terrorism in that country. How the generations succeeding that have come to terms with it, you’d have to ask David. (To David) At school, are you taught about the Holocaust?
DK: Yes. In the preparation of the movie, I read a lot about the Holocaust and realized how little I actually know about it. Everybody thinks we’re learning so much in school and they teach us everything how it was and how it should never be again, but actually I didn’t know a lot about it. So I read a lot in preparation for this.
EI: Did you speak with your parents about it?
DK: Yes, we were talking a lot about it, especially from my grandmother. They had to flee. They lived in eastern Germany, which is now a part of Poland, and had to go out of there. We talked a lot about it and it’s still very there.
EI: Stephen, how did the collaboration with the actors work?
SD: We did a lot of rehearsing. (To David) What do you think? How did I work with you? Am I hands-on? Do I say a lot to you?
DK: Very much. You talk a lot about the script. For an actor, it’s good work, especially because he’s from the theater, and not every director is like that.
EI: It’s hard to be sympathetic to Kate’s character, yet you feel something. How do you balance it?
SD: Whatever the mitigating circumstances of the individual story of her character, the one thing that’s clear is that she’s a war criminal. She’s involved in unspeakable crimes that are not to be forgiven. Having said that, there are millions of people who are involved in different aspects to different degrees in the Holocaust in Germany, and this is one story about one woman who made a series of individual choices based on her own circumstances that led her to the most terrible places created by man. The degrees of her moral illiteracy we were trying to be very clear about whether it’s the relationship with a minor or her relationship with what she was engaged in in the camps. Obviously, from our point of view, it’s a windy flip to her point of view. Often we try to keep her ambiguous, not totally understood or understandable, and she’s perceived predominantly through the eyes of Michael as a young man and Michael as an old man. There are certain narrative impediments and imperatives that make you need to switch to her point of view at certain points, but obviously we were very concerned about how to calibrate the sympathy towards her without ever allowing her to get off the hook.
EI: Did Kate come into this with her own ideas, or did she let you tell her how you wanted her to be?
SD: Kate is a fantastic collaborator. You start from scratch with her and build it together. She has a fantastic intellectual and emotional analysis, and she’s a great person to work through with the script, work through the scenes, and work through with the other actors. She likes to rehearse, so in that sense, it was truly a wonderful collaboration for me. David, how do you think your generation will react to this film in Germany?
DK: It depends. It’s going to be very different. Some people will think… I can’t answer that question.
EI: Will they be interested in seeing the movie?
DK: I don’t know. In school, they read it a lot because it’s school literature. That’s probably a good reason to go and see the film. But I don’t think they would read it in their free time.
SD: As David said, it’s a school text. Its amazing how many people in Germany have read this novel. It’s one of the most important novels dealing with the subject of post-war German guilt that’s been written. To be frank, you never know what generation will come to see it in Germany. I hope as many people as possible will come and see it. We don’t know, do we (to David)?
DK: Let’s hope it will be many.
EI: Did you shoot Ralph [Fiennes]’s scenes first?
SD: It was a bit of both all the way through.
EI: How do you get the continuity of character -- duplicating mannerisms?
SD: David and Ralph spent time together.
DK: We did some rehearsals together.
SD: They’d rehearse each other’s scenes...and watching each other.
DK: Watching each other lying, for example. [Chuckles]
DK: Washing. We spent some time together.
EI: Did he copy you or you copy him?
SD: You (David) weren’t aware of copying at all.
DK: No. I think that would have been a mistake. We saw each other, and in the back of the head, there must be a little bit (of mimickry). I wasn’t aware of it when I was playing a scene.
SD: Pretending to be Ralph...
DK: No, not at all.
EI: What about the nudity? As a director, was it like staring at the scenery? Do you get used to it?
SD: Quite quickly. There isn’t that much nudity in it, really.
EI: How did you balance the novel with making the film?
SD: I’ve been blessed with The Hours and The Reader by the original authors, Michael Cunningham and Mr. Schlink, who were both interested in films being made that weren’t necessarily religiously faithful to the source material. And Mrs. Schlink was very keen that it was not necessarily a dot-by-dot filmed version of his book. It was a different take on it. My first port of call was David Hare spending a great deal of time with the original author to make sure we understood their original intentions, and obviously I kept Mr. Schlink aware of any changes, particularly nuanced changes of narrative or theme as I changed it throughout the shooting process.
EI: What about collaboration with the composer?
SD: Really important. That’s one of the great joys of [Niko] Muhly, who wrote the music for this. He’s a young composer. This is his first major film score, but he’s a genius. I think he’s one of America’s most exciting contemporary composers and works very much with the idea of music as an emotional counterpoint, as well as an emotional support. I’ve worked with him before because he works so much with Philip Glass, who worked with us on The Hours. It’s been a good collaboration.
EI: You only have one scene with Ralph and Kate in the movie, yet it’s impactful. Was it always that way? Or was anything cut?
SD: No, that was as it was written. Oh, there was a telephone call before she killed herself. They had a final telephone call which I did cut, because I thought, at the end of the so-called canteen scene, when she realizes that Michael wasn’t going to offer her any redemption or any possibility of further love...it seemed a natural contusion. We didn’t need a phone call to confirm it.
EI: You want to keep the illiteracy under wraps?
SD: Yes, obviously. But people understand when she’s illiterate at different points. Some people get it fast. Others it takes a while. I’ve met some people, as soon as the first scene where he gives her flowers -- reaction: She can’t read.
DK: [Laughs] Oh really? That’s fast.
SD: It’s called The Reader, so of course she can’t read.
EI: What do you wish audiences will take away from the film?
SD: The honest answer is that I make work for myself that I hope to share, rather than making it work for the audience. So what I hope to get out of it... And it does change for me every time I watch the film, about how I feel about her, about what the story is doing, and I quite like the idea it’s ambiguous. That people, like myself, have a radically different version of what they see, let alone what their emotional relationship to it might be. I suppose I was very clear I wanted the story to be open-ended in that way, that I didn’t want to tie it up. I thought there were dangers in making the story to simplify the moral landscape of the story for the film. I enjoy its ambiguity.
EI: David, how old are you now?