Oscar Week: The Reader (Ryan’s Take)

Looks like it's mostly about reading.

Looks like it's mostly about reading.

Look. We all remember that time we ate too much Mexican before the big meeting. That time we put a huge ding in Dad’s Oldsmobile. And that time we accidentally slept with a Nazi. I’m just saying regrets are a fact of life.

The Reader follows Michael Berg, played in his teens by David Kross (surprisingly compelling) and in his 40’s by Ralph Fiennes (phones it in). We begin in 1950’s Germany where Michael, after a chance meeting, is seduced by an older woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). The two strike up an affair in which Hanna calls all the shots, demanding that Michael read to her (from classic books he’s studying) before any naughty stuff takes place. Everything’s peachy until the day Michael finds that Hanna has left with no explanation.

Years later, while studying to be a lawyer, Michael sits in on the trial of several former Nazi guards. And wouldn’t you know it? Hanna takes the stand. Yes, getting dumped by your first love can leave a scar, but finding out she was also a card carrying member of the most despicable organization in human history is in a class of its own. While watching the trial, Michael realizes that he’s got a key piece of info that could partially exonerate Hanna, but coming forward would mean admitting that he bedded Mrs. Hitler.

Awww, I can't stay mad at her.

Awww, I can't stay mad at her.

The movie needs me to feel conflicted for it to be impactful. I have to love Hanna, vicariously, as Michael does, while at the same time reviling her for the atrocities she took part in. But ya know what? Nazi. That trumps pretty much everything.

But, wait, the movie assures us, she’s one of those “just following orders” Nazis. She gives testimony that she joined up only because the pay was better than her old job. When recounting how she and her fellow guards refused to unlock the doors of a burning church full of prisoners, she explains that opening the doors would have been impossible. The prisoners would have escaped and it was her responsibility to guard them. So, you know, they pretty much all died. Great job, movie, you’ve convinced me that she’s not evil, just dumber than a box of hammers.

And yet, I actually did manage to get invested in this movie, due to outstanding performances by Kate Winslet and David Kross. Winslet absolutely deserves her best actress nomination. Even though their tryst comes out of nowhere, and its crippling long-term effect on Michael is at times unbelievable, I still believed these characters were in love and felt for them when things started to fall apart.

So we’re left with a pretty straightforward star-crossed love story. All the Nazi stuff is really just window dressing. (Any larger point the film may be trying to make about the way post-war Nazis were treated by society kinda falls apart when the Nazi in question is so outlandishly unaware of the morality of her actions.) As a tragic love story, it gets the job done, though the material never lives up to the effort that the leads put in.

The Reader is a mediocre movie elevated by great performances, but not nearly high enough to warrant its best picture nod.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
6 out of 10

2 Responses to “Oscar Week: The Reader (Ryan’s Take)”

  • brian parks Says:

    This is the movie that screwed dark knight out of a best picture nom.

  • Ryan Says:

    As much as I liked Dark Knight, I don’t know if I think it was truly best picture worthy. I actually think it’s insulting that they separated animated films out into their own category, because WALL-E is the best movie I saw last year. But you’re right, The Dark Knight is much better than The Reader.