Judge Brett Cullum wanders into a film where sexy and Nazi merge in uncomfortable ways.
Our review of The Reader (Blu-Ray), published April 28th, 2009, is also available.
"It doesn't matter what I feel. It doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead."—Hanna Schmitz
The Reader found itself bathed in controversy from the start, and the scandals never seemed to let up from filming to release. At first Kate Winslet was in and out of the role due to conflicts with filming Revolutionary Road with her husband directing her. If it had not been for a pregnancy we would have been staring at Nicole Kidman on the cover of this DVD. During development two of three original producers passed away—Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella both tragically died before filming was completed. The young male lead (German actor David Kross, Same Same But Different) had to turn eighteen before they could film certain sexual scenes which were done at the very end of the shoot. Scott Rudin withdrew his name as producer since Harvey Weinstein released the film at the same time as Revolutionary Road and Doubt, both projects Rudin did not want The Reader to compete with for Awards. Then when the time came for acting recognition Kate Winslet was slotted in two different categories because she was against herself with a couple of performances recognized, including her turn in her spouse's Revolutionary Road. Add to all of this the fact that The Reader was an adaptation of a mournful novel about generations of German guilt over the Holocaust. It's a provocative movie for several reasons, but will probably be best known now as the film that won Kate Winslet her Oscar for "Best Actress." Despite any controversy, the film has a haunting power that's difficult to shake, presenting a disturbing moral quandary and a woman you will never forget.
Facts of the Case
The Reader moves back and forth through several decades, but starts in the '50s with the central story. Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a lonely working class woman who ends up having a brief summer affair with a teenage boy. Years later she ends up on trial for Nazi war crimes, and he holds a secret that could save her from a lifetime of prison. We follow both characters as they are torn between guilt and secrets over their entire existence.
Essentially The Reader works so well because it asks one intriguing question you can't get out of your head: "What if someone you loved turned out to be a Nazi?" Hanna is at first a young boy's fantasy, a sexy and direct woman only looking for an affair. What Michael does not realize is Hanna only allows people to get as close as a summer fling, and anything more is impossible. Her past shadows her in ways she will never admit. The film delivers a haunting character study, and that explains why Kate Winslet's performance was lauded easily. The Reader focuses on the story of Michael, and her character remains shrouded in mystery and stoic secrecy. We never understand Hanna wholly, and that is where the genius comes in to play with the actress deciding how much we should know based on her portrayal. There are courtroom scenes where Hanna is on trial for crimes against humanity when she was only doing what she was told to do, and Winslet pitches that exchange perfectly. She finds the humanity in the monster at every turn, and that won her the Academy Award.
There are three other remarkable performances in the film that deserve mention. Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) and David Kross get to play Michael at two distinct ages. Fiennes does his part well, but Kross certainly has the bravest moments. His performance is wonderfully informed and of a caliber that matches both of his more accomplished costars. It's hard to believe he does not normally act in English language films. Lena Olin (Romeo is Bleeding) gets to play both mother and daughter in different eras who are victims of the Nazis. She provides the steely resolve that mirrors Kate Winslet's turn. As unapologetic as Hanna is, her characters are equally unforgiving.
Genius Products delivers a top notch DVD in the technical execution. Skin tones are warm and inviting, while production detail is clear and precise. The print is in excellent shape without any distortions or scratches. Audio surround provides a nice atmosphere which delivers the dialogue and excellent musical score equally well.
Given The Reader's controversial release the extras are merely a quintet of featurettes that barely scratch the surface of everything. There is a look at the creation of the film as an adaptation of an important novel, and also discussion about the deaths of producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. You get one feature about making the project, and another with the director and David Kross discussing the film. Kate Winslet has a solo interview about the challenges of going from her thirties to sixties with loads of prosthetics to realistically age her. Composer Nico Muhly's excellent work is highlighted in a separate piece. Finally there is a look at the production design. Included are eleven deleted scenes, many of which help flesh out the film with extra beats from the final act. It's nice to see them here. There is a surprising wealth of moments that are poignant and hard to believe were not in the final cut. Some are quite graphic, and it's shocking to see how far the movie was willing to go.
The Reader is a difficult watch because it gazes at a woman who has an affair with a teenage boy and turns out to be a Nazi responsible for hundreds of deaths. It's not an uplifting life affirming journey, but rather a look at a tortured soul who did unspeakable things she can never take back. Hanna Schmitz is a legend of German literature, a figure who represents a country's guilt and remorse. Kate Winslet turns in a performance of a lifetime by bravely taking on a sexually explicit role that also requires her to mine tricky emotional terrain. Her Hanna is the main reason to check out The Reader, because she is easily the year's most fascinating film character.
Guilty of being a provocative study of a woman, The Reader is
simultaneously sexy and troubling.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Deleted Scenes
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