The Reader is a film that was never supposed to be released this year. Both of the producers on the film, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, had died before the film was finished. Harvey Weinstein pushed for it to be finished for this year’s Oscars. Once it started being seen by critics, the reviews were not quite up to snuff. But then the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated the film for Best Picture and Kate Winslet won the Critics Choice award for Supporting Actor and suddenly, The Reader’s lukewarm reviews didn’t seem to matter.
The Reader is a film that caught fire late in the season but it is, as it turns out, one of the year’s best surprises. The success of the film is due almost entirely to Kate Winslet’s moving, complicated turn as Hanna Schmitz, an illiterate German woman who ends up working in the concentration camps during World War II.
Winslet has never had a year as good as this one, with Revolutionary Road and now, The Reader. She won both Lead and Supporting at the Golden Globes and seems bound to win one or another Oscar. Both roles seemed at opposite ends of the human experience, though both deal with post-World War II life. In Revolutionary Road, the American Dream tangles around Winslet’s neck until she suffocates, while in The Reader, she plays a woman who is shamed for her compliance during the Holocaust.
The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s national bestseller, tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who is seduced by a woman in her ‘30s (Winslet). She awakens his sexuality and he awakens her love of reading. She asks him to read novels to her every time they meet. He doesn’t understand the reason for this until much later in life.
Years later, the boy has grown into a man and he runs into Hanna Schmitz again; this time she’s being called before the government to answer for her actions during the war, how she aided the Nazis in killing Jews. She worked as a prison guard, and when her case came to trial she was scapegoated for being the ringleader. She ends up with the sentence of life in prison; how easy it was for Germans to make the problem go away by punishing Hanna Schmitz. How much more difficult to look at themselves and how they too stoody by.
The Reader is a love story of sorts, but more than that it is a closer look at how we deal with secrets, how we deal with buried shame, and how much easier it is to choose suffering in silence rather than making a fuss. It wasn’t only the Germans, of course, who stood by; the whole world did. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons the Holocaust continues to make us all feel guilty. No one did enough to stop what was going on.
Ralph Fiennes plays the boy as an adult and Lena Olin has a small part as the grown-up daughter of one of the camp survivors. It is a beautifully shot film, but this film really is all about Kate Winslet in one of her finest incarnations to date.