The Reader (2008 film)
|Directed by||Stephen Daldry|
|Screenplay by||David Hare|
|Based on||Der Vorleser|
by Bernhard Schlink
|Edited by||Claire Simpson|
|Music by||Nico Muhly|
|Box office||$108.9 million|
The Reader is a 2008 romantic drama film directed by Stephen Daldry and written by David Hare, based on the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. It stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and David Kross. It was the last film for producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom died prior to its release. Production began in Germany in September 2007, and the film opened in limited release on December 10, 2008.
The film tells the story of Michael Berg, a German lawyer who, as a 15-year-old in 1958, has a sexual relationship with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. She disappears only to resurface years later as one of the defendants in a war crimes trial stemming from her actions as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. Michael realizes that Hanna is keeping a personal secret she believes is worse than her Nazi past – a secret which, if revealed, could help her at the trial. Some historians criticised the film for making Schmitz an object of the audience's sympathy and accused the filmmakers of Holocaust revisionism.
Although it received mixed reviews, Winslet and Kross, who plays the young Michael, received acclaim for their performances; Winslet won a number of awards for her role, including the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself was nominated for several other major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In 1995 Berlin, after a woman who had spent the night with Michael Berg leaves his apartment abruptly, he watches a U-Bahn pass by, setting up a flashback to a tram in 1958. In the flashback, as a 15-year-old boy, Michael feels sick while wandering the streets. Pausing beside an apartment building, he vomits. A tram conductor named Hanna Schmitz who lives there, cleans him up and helps him return home. Michael, diagnosed with scarlet fever, recuperates at home until recovered, and then visits Hanna with flowers to thank her.
The 36-year-old Hanna seduces him, and they begin an affair. They spend much of their time together having sex in her apartment, after which she has had Michael read to her from literary works he is studying. After a bicycling trip with Michael, Hanna learns that she was promoted to a clerical job at the tram's head offices, upon which she suddenly leaves the company and her home, without telling Michael or anyone else where or why she has vanished.
In 1966, Michael is at Heidelberg University Law School. As part of a special seminar, the students observe a trial (similar to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials) of several former SS guards accused of letting 300 Jewish women and children perish in a burning church during the death march following one of the evacuation of concentration camps near Krakow, Poland. There Michael is stunned to see that Hanna is one of these defendants.
The key evidence in the trial is the testimony of Ilana Mather, author of a memoir relating how she and her mother Rose, who also testifies, survived. She describes how Hanna had women from the camp read to her in the evenings. Hanna, unlike her co-defendants, admits that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and that the 10 women she chose during each month's Selektion were gassed. She denied however, authorship of a report on the church fire event as an accident that could not be helped. Hanna's co-defendants then join together in a group lie to blame Hanna for writing the report. Hanna insists that all the guards present agreed on the contents of the report, but when asked to provide a handwriting sample, she admits the charge, instead of complying with the handwriting test.
Michael belatedly realizes Hanna's secret: She is illiterate, a fact she has been concealing all her life. Thus the other guards who blamed the written report on her can easily clear themselves. Michael informs the law professor of the favorable fact, but since the defendant herself has chosen not to disclose it, the professor is not sure what to do about it. Michael, appearing to visit Hanna, reneges and leaves the prison without seeing her.
Hanna receives a life sentence for her admitted leadership role in the church deaths, while the other defendants are sentenced to four years and three months each. Michael, meanwhile, engages in a romance with his classmate, whom he marries, and has a daughter with, but eventually divorces later. After retrieving his books from his childhood home from the time of his and Hanna's affair, he begins reading them into a tape recorder, which he then sends to Hanna. Eventually, she begins borrowing books from the prison library and teaches herself to read and write by following along with Michael's tapes. She starts writing back to Michael, first in brief, childlike notes, and as time goes by, her letters reflect her gradually improving literacy.
In 1988, a prison official telephones him to seek his help with Hanna's transition into society after her upcoming early release for good behavior. Since she has no family or other relations, he finds a place for her to live and even a job, and finally visits Hanna towards her release. During their meeting, Michael remains somewhat distant, inquiring about what she has learnt from her past, to which she replies merely "It doesn't matter what I feel and it doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead." Michael arrives at the prison on the date of Hanna's release with flowers, only to find out that Hanna has hanged herself. She has left a tea tin with cash inside and a note asking him to deposit the money in a bank account to Ilana, whose memoir of her dreadful experiences in the concentration camp Hanna has read.
Michael travels to New York City, where he meets Ilana and recounts his relationship with Hanna, and its long-lasting impact. He tells her about the suicide note and Hanna's illiteracy. Ilana rebuffs Michael there is nothing to be learned from the camps and refuses the money, and Michael suggests that it be donated to any Jewish welfare organization dealing with literacy. Ilana refuses any attempt at a conciliatory gesture, but claims the tea tin, describing it as similar to one stolen from her in Auschwitz.
The film ends with Michael driving his daughter Julia to Hanna's grave, and telling her their story.
- Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz
- Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael Berg
- David Kross as the younger Michael Berg
- Bruno Ganz as Professor Rohl, a Holocaust survivor
- Alexandra Maria Lara as Ilana Mather, a concentration camp survivor
- Lena Olin as Rose Mather (Ilana's mother), and as the older Ilana Mather
- Vijessna Ferkic as Sophie, Michael's friend at school
- Karoline Herfurth as Marthe, Michael's friend at university
- Burghart Klaußner as the judge at Hanna's trial
- Linda Bassett as Mrs. Brenner, prison official
- Hannah Herzsprung as Julia, Michael Berg's daughter in 1995
- Jeanette Hain as Brigitte, Michael's girlfriend in 1995
- Susanne Lothar as Carla Berg, Michael's mother
- Matthias Habich as Peter Berg, Michael's father
- Florian Bartholomäi as Thomas Berg, Michael's brother
- Alissa Wilms as Emily Berg, Michael's sister
- Sylvester Groth as the prosecutor at Hanna's trial
- Fabian Busch as the defense lawyer at Hanna's trial
- Volker Bruch as Dieter Spenz, a student in the seminar group
In April 1998 Miramax Films acquired the rights to the novel The Reader, and principal photography began in September 2007 immediately after Stephen Daldry was signed to direct the film adaptation and Fiennes was cast in a lead role. Winslet was originally cast as Hanna, but scheduling difficulties with Revolutionary Road led her to leave the film and Nicole Kidman was cast as her replacement. In January 2008, Kidman left the project, citing her recent pregnancy as the primary reason. She had not filmed any scenes yet, so the studio was able to recast Winslet without affecting the production schedule.
Filming took place in Berlin, Görlitz, on the Kirnitzschtal tramway near Bad Schandau, and finished in the MMC Studios Köln in Cologne on July 14. Filmmakers received $718,752 from Germany's Federal Film Board. Overall, the studio received $4.1 million from Germany's regional and federal subsidiaries.
Schlink insisted the film be shot in English rather than German, as it posed questions about living in a post-genocide society that went beyond mid-century Germany. Daldry and Hare toured locations from the novel with Schlink, viewed documentaries about that period in German history, and read books and articles about women who had served as SS guards in the camps. Hare, who rejected using a voiceover narration to render the long internal monologues in the novel, also changed the ending so that Michael starts to tell the story of Hanna and him to his daughter. "It's about literature as a powerful means of communication, and at other times as a substitute for communication", he explained. The filming of sex scenes with Kross and Winslet were delayed until Kross turned 18.
The primary cast, all of whom were German besides Fiennes, Olin, and Winslet, decided to emulate Kross's accent since he had just learned English for the film. Chris Menges replaced Roger Deakins as cinematographer. One of the film's producers, Scott Rudin, left the production over a dispute about the rushed editing process to ensure a 2008 release date and had his name removed from the credit list. Rudin differed with Harvey Weinstein "because he didn't want to campaign for an Oscar along with Doubt and Revolutionary Road, which also stars Winslet." Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award for The Reader. Marc Caro wrote, "Because Winslet couldn't get Best Actress nominations for both movies, the Weinstein Co. shifted her to supporting actress for The Reader as a courtesy ..." but that it is "... up to [the voters] to place the name in the category that they think is appropriate to the performance", resulting in her receiving more Best Actress nomination votes for this film than the Best Actress submission of her Revolutionary Road performance. Winslet's head-to-head performances also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for Revolutionary Road and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader.
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly writes that "Ralph Fiennes has perhaps the toughest job, playing the morose adult Michael – a version, we can assume, of the author. Fiennes masters the default demeanor of someone perpetually pained."
On December 10, 2008 The Reader had a limited release at 8 theaters and grossed $168,051 at the domestic box office in its opening weekend. The film had its wide release on January 30, 2009 and grossed $2,380,376 at the domestic box office. The film's widest release was at 1,203 theaters on February 27, 2009, the weekend after the Oscar win for Kate Winslet.
In total, the film has grossed $34,194,407 at the domestic box office and $108,901,967 worldwide. The film was released on DVD in the U.S. on April 14, 2009 and April 28 on Blu-ray. Both versions were released in the UK on May 25, 2009. In Germany two DVD versions (single disc and 2-disc special edition) and Blu-ray were released on September 4, 2009.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 63% based on 204 reviews, with an average rating of 6.4/10. The site's consensus states, "Despite Kate Winslet's superb portrayal, The Reader suggests an emotionally distant, Oscar-baiting historical drama." At Metacritic the film was assigned a weighted average score of 58 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post wrote, "This engrossing, graceful adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical novel has been adapted by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry with equal parts simplicity and nuance, restraint and emotion. At the center of a skein of vexing ethical questions, Winslet delivers a tough, bravura performance as a woman whose past coincides with Germany's most cataclysmic and hauntingly unresolved era."
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote, "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation."
Patrick Goldstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The picture's biggest problem is that it simply doesn't capture the chilling intensity of its source material," and noted there was a "largely lackluster early reaction" to the film by most film critics. Most felt that while the novel portrayed Hanna's illiteracy as a metaphor for generational illiteracy about the Holocaust, the film failed to convey those thematic overtones.
Ron Rosenbaum was critical of the film's fixation on Hanna's illiteracy, saying, "so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy – despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn't require reading skills – that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it's been declared "classic" and "profound") actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder ... Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you're guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it's not shown in the film."
Kirk Honeycutt's review in The Hollywood Reporter was more generous, concluding the picture was a "well-told coming-of-age yarn" but "disturbing" for raising critical questions about complicity in the Holocaust. He praised Winslet and Kross for providing "gutsy, intense performances", noted that Olin and Ganz turn in "memorable appearances", and noted that the cinematographers, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, lent the film a "fine professional polish". Colm Andrew of the Manx Independent also rated the film highly and observed it had "countless opportunities to become overly sentimental or dramatic and resists every one of them, resulting in a film which by its conclusion, has you not knowing which quality to praise the most".
At The Huffington Post, Thelma Adams found the relationship between Hanna and Michael, which she termed abusive, more disturbing than any of the historical questions in the movie: "Michael is a victim of abuse, and his abuser just happened to have been a luscious retired Auschwitz guard. You can call their tryst and its consequences a metaphor of two generations of Germans passing guilt from one to the next, but that doesn't explain why filmmakers Daldry and Hare luxuriated in the sex scenes – and why it's so tastefully done audiences won't see it for the child pornography it is."
When asked to respond, Hare called it "the most ridiculous thing ... We went to great lengths to make sure that that's exactly what it didn't turn into. The book is much more erotic." Daldry added, "He's a young man who falls in love with an older woman who is complicated, difficult and controlling. That's the story."
The film appeared on several critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2008. Rex Reed of The New York Observer named it the 2nd best film of 2008. Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter named it the 4th best film of 2008, Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club named it the 8th best film of 2008, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times put it on his unranked top 20 list.
Special praise went to Winslet's acting; she then swept the main prizes in the 2008/2009 award season, including the Golden Globe, the Critic's Choice Award, the Screen Actor's Guild Award, the BAFTA, and the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Several writers noted that her success seemed to have made real her appearance in the BBC comedy Extras, in which she played a fictionalized version of herself desperate to win an Academy Award. In the episode, Winslet decided to increase her chance of winning an Oscar by starring in a film about the Holocaust, noting that such films were often awarded Oscars. However, in the fictional film, Winslet played a nun sheltering children from the Holocaust rather than one of its perpetrators. Winslet commented that the similarity "would be funny", but the connection didn't occur to her until "midway through shooting the film...this was never a Holocaust movie to me. That's part of the story and provides something of a backdrop, and sets the scene. But to me it was always an extraordinarily unconventional love story."
Awards and nominations
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