German thinker Theodor Adorno once said, “To still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That notion of the horror of the camps as a black hole that swallows everything — including literature and its search for meaning — reappears in a key scene of The Reader. A middle-aged German lawyer named Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) visits a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin), seeking enlightenment about a part of his life that still baffles him. “People ask me if I learned anything in the camps,” she tells him. “The camps were not therapy. Nothing came out of the camps. Nothing.”
It’s a searing scene, all the more powerful because Olin’s words seem to erase the rest of the movie. Based on a 1995 bestseller by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is a sleek little sloop of a tale drowned by a raging ocean of a subject. However, this conscientious, sometimes stilted adaptation from director Stephen Daldry and playwright/screenwriter David Hare — the team behind The Hours — has its moments, and its failure to attain its aims is more thought-provoking than many films’ success.
Many of the good moments come from Kate Winslet in her role as the woman Fiennes’ character can’t forget. Early in the novel, we flash back from his present life to 1958, when 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) got sick on a city street and was aided by Hanna, a tram attendant in her thirties. The product of a solid bourgeois home, the boy is attracted to this beautiful proletarian who acts on her impulses. Soon they have a daily ritual that involves both sex and reading aloud. (She teaches him the moves; he does the reading.)
These scenes of two people creating their own private world are moody and compelling. Still, the actors never quite connect, perhaps because Kross is a German speaking English and Winslet is an Englishwoman faking a Teutonic accent. (This trend needs to stop. We’re already suspending our disbelief when we watch German characters interact in English — no need for “authenticity.”)
Michael reads Hanna an array of literary classics, from the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn, but we never learn what the particular books mean to her. We do learn why she likes to be read to in the film’s next section, set several years later, where Michael encounters his old lover again. This time, he’s a law student and she’s on trial for crimes she may have committed as an SS member and concentration camp guard.
Here, where The Reader should all come together, is where it starts to disintegrate. Whether played by Kross or Fiennes, the adult Michael is a frustratingly aloof, passive figure. Clearly Schlink is trying to explore the dilemma of Germans born in the postwar period: In the wake of the Holocaust, what can you do or say that matters? Does love still make us better people? Does great literature still humanize us? Or is Hanna — and, by extension, Michael’s formative affair with Hanna — beyond redemption?
The factor missing from this equation is Hanna herself. What the script tells us about her is tantalizing, but frustratingly incomplete. In a wrenching scene where Hanna tries to explain herself, she comes off as an unforgivable moral coward, her crimes rooted in fear and obtuseness to the suffering of others. But when we first met her, she was rushing to the aid of a stranger vomiting uncontrollably in the street. Is this the same woman?
Watching The Reader, it’s hard not to wish for a different story that would have put Hanna’s pieces together, as well as giving her victims their due. If nothing comes out of the camps, as Olin says in that pivotal scene, the same is true of Michael’s German baby boomer guilt — it’s a dead end. But a film that showed us how an ordinary, decent-seeming woman became an accomplice to mass murder — now, that would teach us something. It wouldn’t be poetic, but it might be true.