postheadericon The Reader, And Why Reading is Sexy

Call me stupid, but I’m always surprised when a movie is about Nazis without making it clear in the title or trailers – Indiana Jones did this too (well actually Indiana Jones was probably the only other one so I guess “always” is a bit inappropriate). Judging by the title and its trailers, I thought The Reader would be some boring movie about, I don’t know, reading, and have some sort of literacy-related tryst between Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. And while this is very much true, there is a Holocaust element to it which shifts uncomfortably between the foreground and background like the lines of a Necker Cube.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: movies today are too damn long. At over 150 minutes, The Reader is what I’m talking about. If you cut out all the nudity, brooding, and ruminating on a series of non-issues, you probably would have a movie that was less than an hour long.

So Michael (Ralph Fiennes when he’s old; some jerk during flashbacks) begins a relationship with Hanna (Kate Winslet). This is fine except at the time Michael is 15 and Hanna is 361. Their romance is related to us on screen by a montage of them having sex and Michael reading to Hanna (get it? he’s The Reader) – it’s a mix of titular and tits. They do this for a while until one day Mike goes to her apartment and she’s gone. And he’s sad.

Flash forward some appropriate amount of time to when Michael is in law school. Mike’s class goes to watch the trial of the SS officers who were responsible for burning 300 Spartans prisoners in a church. The defendant accused of being in charge of the operation is – you guessed it – Hanna. Mike’s shocked. Except she wasn’t in charge because she couldn’t have written the report that implicates her because she’s... *HUGE PLOT TWIST*... illiterate! Mike’s shocked again! Only he shouldn’t be because it was pretty obvious.

How obvious? One, they never show her reading. They show her cooking, showering, fixing her pantyhose, but never, ever reading. Two, although she enjoys being read to, she never exhibits any previous knowledge of any of the classic literature Michael reads to her – if she likes classical lit so much you’d think she’d at least be like “Ooh I’ve read that one.” But what sealed the deal for me was 30 minutes into the movie they go to a restaurant and Hanna blankly stares at the menu with a strained look on her face before asking Michael to order. Not “Ooh that looks good” or “How about the fish?” Just a look on her face that was a mixture of an utter lack of understanding and extreme pain, and if you’ve ever seen one of those PSAs on illiteracy you know exactly what I mean.

But anyways, she gets convicted despite the existence of this exculpatory evidence because given the choice between being a mass murderer and illiterate she would rather choose the former. Got that?

So now Michael becomes all broody – something to the effect of “Dude, I can’t believe I dated a Nazi!” – which is completely unnecessary because there’s absolutely no way he could have known about her past. He’s also quite shocked to hear how the prisoners were treated during the Holocaust. Apparently when he woke up one day and saw that all his Jewish neighbours were missing, he assumed they had all gone on vacation, and that the men with the guns and trucks were just really pushy travel agents... Anyways, thanks to some plot convenient memory-cuing, Michael decides to send Hanna some tape recordings of him reading. While listening to them in prison, Hanna learns to read. This makes perfect sense because, you know, it’s not like she spent 36 years listening to other people talk or anything.

I’m going to stop here because writing this plot summary is almost as boring as watching the movie. Call me stupid again, but I usually expect quality from Oscar nominated movies and I had quite a few problems with The Reader. The film made it very clear that we were supposed to feel sorry for Hanna but I found it next to impossible. The film tries assuage Hanna’s guilt by unconvincingly drawing a distinction between being in charge of the group that burned 300 prisoners (“Evil!”), and merely being a member of the group that burned 300 prisoners (“Well... sort of evil”). She also never shows any remorse for her actions (until the very end), and is instead more concerned with playing the “illiteracy sucks” card. Even her death, which is supposed to be a heartstring-tugger, falls completely flat: in a fit of guilt (possibly after reading Mass Murder is Bad by J.A. Commonsense) she hangs herself, but not before leaving a tea tin full of money she collected in prison (how?) with instructions to give it to the children of Holocaust victims. Thanks Hanna! That almost makes up for burning their parents alive!

A much better book

An astute Reader-supporter may compare The Reader’s major theme to that of Ayn Rand’s Anthem2, but that doesn’t make it any better. Anthem looks at whether abstract ideas like ego and freedom can exist without the semantic symbols representing them. An Anthemian reading of The Reader would imply that literacy precedes and is a necessary component of morality – because Hanna couldn’t read she couldn’t form the requisite morals to prevent her from burning people alive. I’m sure quite a few illiterate people would be offended by that idea... if they had it read to them.

Realistically though, Hanna’s a fully functioning person. She can speak fluently, hold down a job, afford an apartment, seduce young men, and all the other necessities of life. Illiteracy makes her life less convenient; it does not fundamentally change her ability to reason right from wrong. Mass murder makes you a jerk any way you read it.

Movies about jerks are fine, but be upfront about it. And if I’m supposed to sympathise with the jerk, give me some sort of reason to. A tragically flawed character is only as good as his or her tragic flaw – imagine if Oedipus wasn’t drowning in his own hubris but instead, I don’t know, couldn’t ride a bike.

That's supposed to be a bicylce by the way

In summary, The Reader was long, boring, and had some really questionable central themes. I know some people are into that sort of stuff, but I don’t think even they would like it. Ultimately The Reader gives you a choice: either you’re an apathetic jerk, or you’re a Nazi sympathiser.

1: This is according to Wikipedia because I don’t remember them actually explicitly stating their ages, but I’m sure there was some sort of contrived exposition that I probably slept through.

2: No, I don’t think anyone has said this yet. They’re probably too busy reading that book about the guy who was a drug addict, although it turns out he was never a drug addict or something.


anubha said...

You read?! Also, I am telling Mum that you used foul language on the internets.