The Reader debuted at the Paris Theater tonight. Kate Winslet is incredible in this film. Just stunning. She plays a Nazi, something that makes us immediately start to squirm. How uncomfortable! The leading lady plays a Nazi!? Well, she, as we learn, has a story too.
We are welcomed into this difficult and deeply cutting film with a love story. A love affair. Which-- it should be noted-- a love affair very different for the character and for the audience than a love story. We expect a love story, no matter the film... but we devour affairs.
Furthermore, without this illicit act, our attention would have been much further removed, much more sedated. We wouldn't have held the captivation and emotional linkage. Without a passionate affair, this would be a War Film. The affair was there for a reason, and it wasn't just the story line. It is a way of grabbing our interest in a much different tone than something like La Vita e Bella. Its heat, not heart right from the get-go. And because of the affair and the immediate direction, we remain a bit confused as to whose side we are on. Whose valor to give our hearts. I don't know about you, but I gave mine to Hanna.
It also should be stated that Kate Winselt's character, Hanna Schmitz, isn't the textbook definition of Nazi. She works for the Nazi party, but has absolutely no political agenda or motive behind her work. She is a guard, she is doing a job. If I sound immoral in defending her, well, that is exactly what the film is about... morality. Morality, blame, forgiveness. What is right, what is wrong, and how should we decide. Its law verses reality, morality verses understanding. Its messy because it was messy.
Winselt stole the show with a shockingly non-emotional role. Hanna Schmitz was the most straight forward, unyielding character I've seen in a long time. I never imagined Winselt such an ungraceful role. But she absolutely convinced us. Her actions were so nondescript and so small, yet she held a presence of massive proportions.
We wept for her fragility, and wanted to shake her into some sort of understanding. Did she really not get it?! Did she not know what she was doing?! It seemed that way, but the audience was left with some guessing, as we acted as jury, not prosecutor.
The film is called The Reader, and it is the reading that gives Hanna our faith and the benefit of our doubt. She loved being read to, and her affair turned very quickly from one based on sex to one based on literature. Our hearts broke for the beauty of it all.
She does learn to read at the end, and at this part only did my tears overflow. What did you learn here, asks Michael upon her release from twenty years in prison. I learned to read she answers sternly. Ah, we get it too. Just as Hanna circles every 'the' on the page of her book and realizes for the first time understands that letters make sounds and sounds make words and works make sentences and sentences make stories... we understand her emotional absence upon serving a life term for the charge of 300 murders. What I feel and what I learn doesn't matter she says. The dead are still dead. Ah... we get it. And we ache for her.
Lena Olin enters as the representative Jew in this film. She plays both mother and daughter (did anyone else catch that, or is my Alias obsession finally coming in handy?) From her we learn not forgiveness (Can it be taught in this situation? Should it be?) but understanding. She doesn't reach down her right hand as we suddenly want her to do. She feels nothing but hate and anger toward Hanna. And yes, we have to remind ourselves, we hate her too. Because sometimes, even in the end, understanding has to be enough.