Sunday, 8 March 2009
Films about the Holocaust are nobody's idea of a good time for a whole variety of reasons, but The Reader is a rare example of a Holocaust film that makes you wonder why they bothered mentioning the Holocaust at all. Michael Berg (David Kross) is a schoolboy in 1950s Germany who stumbles into a relationship with a cold-hearted tram conductor (Kate Winslet) - though how cold-hearted can she be when a bath at her place comes complete with her getting her gear off? Anyway, she's emotionally distant, then she suddenly leaves town (making her physically distant as well), then he grows up to be a law student (and Ralph Feinnes) who goes on a class trip to a war crimes trial only to discover his ex is a SS guard defendant accused of killing hundreds. The film's steadfast refusal to treat her as anything more monstrous than your typically flawed human being is to be applauded, but it does also end up rendering large chunks of the film pointless. If this is a film about a man who's ability to emotionally connect with others is stunted by a first love who is borderline emotionally abusive - and in parts it sure seems like it - then having her turn out to be an SS guard seems heavy-handed in the extreme. If, on the other hand, it's about the impossibility of assigning the label "evil" to an individual - Ms SS guard being both obviously guilty yet understandably human - then what's with all the sex? Or the clumsy plot twist that means he's the only person who knows she's not completely guilty (just mass murder-adjacent)? Winslet gives a solid performance and the film itself is never dull, but for a story so obviously designed to tackle big issues seriously this feels a little too exploitative whichever way you read it.
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #447)