Every once in a while, among the crash and burn movies, the chick flicks, and the huge panoramic soap operas, comes a little morality play, fascinating to watch with enough sex to satisfy the curious and prurient but with an essential question that probes deep into the heart of everyman. In The Reader, you get a two-fer: a sensual love affair and a philosophic question of guilt and responsibility, not only personal but national.
Germany, 1950s. A 15-year-old boy falls ill in the street. An older woman comes to help him. When he recovers, he returns to her shabby flat to thank her. She is an uneducated streetcar conductor, quite beautiful but twice his age. He may be only 15, but he’s tall and handsome. He has helped her shovel coal, he’s covered with coal dust, she asks him (like a good mother) to take off his clothes for a bath and, with no preamble, she’s naked against him.
So starts the relationship of a simple woman and a bright young boy. As they lie in bed after making love (only sex for her, but a first and powerful love affair for the boy), he reads to her from his schoolbooks. She’s fascinated by the stories, and his reading soon becomes part of the affair, a part that seems to delight her.
Suddenly, her job (streetcar conductor) is transferred, and one day he arrives at her apartment and she’s gone. The boy goes on to law school and his professor takes a group of students to an important trial of ten women whose jobs were guarding Jews on their way to a concentration camp. The prisoners have been locked in an old church, suddenly a fire blazes, the prisoners are trapped inside. The women refuse to open the doors to let the prisoners out. To his chagrin, the boy sees his lover sitting there, accused. He’s mortified, says nothing. And when the other women try to pin the responsibility on her, claiming that she wrote the letter that made the decision not to free the prisoners, he’s forced to think back.
He realizes that she could not have written it. She loved to hear him read because she was illiterate, and now she is so ashamed of her illiteracy that she has refused to save herself. It is his responsibility now to admit the affair and save her. But he hasn’t the courage to act. He cannot. The other women are given a few years, but Hanna, his lover, is given a life sentence. And he does nothing. He cannot admit his youthful indiscretion.
The boy grows into a man, a lawyer, he’s divorced, lonely, and he’s never without the sense of guilt that this woman is in prison for life because he hadn’t the courage to speak up for her. To ease his conscience, he makes tapes of books she loved and sends them to her in prison. What happens to her — a very simple, illiterate woman — is that with his tapes and the books, she teaches herself to read and to write. Her life changes. She begins to think and understand…which may be her downfall.
To see the beautiful Kate Winslet age is remarkable. Plain, illiterate, unable to see the irony of her complicity in the act of murdering the trapped prisoners…she plays a remarkable role — with her eyes, primarily. The lonely lawyer (Ralph Fiennes) is one of our treasures. If you have not seen it, rent a TV film called Bernard and Doris where he plays a homosexual assistant to the heiress Doris Duke — the relationship of a man who does nothing in his life but serve the woman who has hired him, and the millionairess who orders him about like a servant and ends up totally dependent on his care and affection. He plays one scene in women’s clothing. Only Ralph Fiennes can pull that off with class.
The novel on which the The Reader is based was controversial. Here is a good man who, in a moment of decision when he knew he had to do the right thing, could not. This little film has the power of a Greek tragedy in which you see a man cast down by a tragic flaw in his nature…but the protagonist in The Reader is able to survive and consider the meaning of his life, and you have the opportunity, as in Greek theater, to look at yours.
The Reader hasn’t the depth of Death of a Salesman nor the emotional tragedy of Streetcar Named Desire. It plays on a smaller canvas. But today, where life in and out of the movies plays at breakneck speed, paced like The Bourne Ultimatum, there is rarely time away from the Blackberry to consider the nature of social responsibility. Something is happening. Today. In the midst of all this “terrible” news of Depression times revisited, a little crack of light emerges. Issues of social responsibility presented by a hopeful new administration leave us blinking in the light. A candidate who actually speaks of truth and transparency, who speaks in actual words instead of ad-men artificiality — dare we believe it?
Seeing The Reader is a philosophical struggle, an important a question today as it was for Germans who saw the Holocaust and did nothing. If there are pacing problems with the ending…well, you decide. We are, in these hard times, so cynical. Honesty? Responsibility? You can drown in MSNBC’s stories of greed and mendacity…but…maybe…that little sliver of hope breaks through.
The Reader is a very good film — not quite a great film, but a really solid and important film for our times. The screenplay was written by David Hare, a fine playwright. Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes are both quite exceptional. Go see it now, before the awards begin to flow...
'The Reader' is in theaters now from The Weinstein Company.