Oscar, Oscar! The Reader’s Winslet Left Me Gasping

rex 9 Oscar, Oscar! The Reader’s Winslet Left Me GaspingThe Reader
Running time 123 minutes
Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, David Kross

The turkey’s in the soup, the retailers are praying for a Merry Christmas, and the year-end movie countdown is in full swing. I’ve still got a few items on my screening list, but I will go out on a limb right now and predict I will see nothing greater, more haunting, wrenching or profound, than The Reader. I’m preparing you in advance. One viewing is not enough. It opens next week and I can’t wait to see it again.

Adapted by David Hare from the renowned best-selling literary sensation by German novelist Bernhard Schlink; meticulously directed by the formidable Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot); and starring Kate Winslet in an Oscar-caliber performance that is one of the most devastating of her career, with a supporting cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz and young newcomer David Kross—one of the most sensitive and charismatic discoveries in years—The Reader arrives with artistry stamped all over it. But no expectation can prepare you for its emotional impact. It has left me dazed.

The Holocaust figures into the plot, but instead of being a movie about the horrors of World War II, The Reader bridges the controversial gap between two generations—the Germans who lived and committed crimes under Hitler, and the generation of young postwar Germans who still don’t understand their country’s past. The emotional probing, spiritual shame and moral confusion that connect the people from these diverse generations is the glue that makes The Reader such a vital, important and timeless motion picture. I am so passionate about it that I think it should be taught in film schools. It is certainly a work of overwhelming accomplishment.

Berlin, 1995. The wall is long gone. It’s a new world, but successful lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) cannot forget the events that shaped his manhood. When he was 15, he fell ill in a doorway with scarlet fever and was rescued by a lady streetcar conductor who bathed him and took him home to his family. After two months of recovery, he returned with flowers, and a sexual relationship began that changed his life forever. Empowered by first love, the naïve, virginal schoolboy learns many things from the older woman. His grades improve; he develops self-confidence; and he spends an erotic summer passing the time between country picnics and rainy-afternoon orgasms reading aloud the great literary works of Mark Twain, D. H. Lawrence, Chekhov and Homer to a woman old enough to be his mother, who calls herself simply Hanna. One day he arrives to find her apartment empty. Hanna has disappeared without a trace, and the boy is left alone, tormented and confused by a haze of memories.

By 1966, Michael is a bright, promising law student in Heidelberg whose class attends a trial of Nazi war criminals accused of murdering 600 Jews. In the courtroom docks, one of the defendants turns out to be his beloved Hanna, who is accused of being an SS guard at Auschwitz. Stricken mute and overcome with conflicting emotions that leave him shattered, Michael is further astonished when she confesses to personally writing the orders that condemned 300 of the inmates to death. But wait. Michael knows his old friend could neither read nor write. That’s why he was the reader and she was the grateful listener. Knowing she has given a false confession to save her pride, Michael is the only person with the one piece of evidence that can save her. Torn between the embers of a lost love for her and the truth of who and what she really was in a war that was before his time, the young man makes his own pilgrimage to Auschwitz, where the ovens are now tourist attractions. Will he save her, or will he remain quietly and morally indignant along with the rest of his generation? This story is far from over, and what happens in the next 20 years and leading up to present-day Germany will leave you with your mouth wide open. To say more would spoil what I promise unequivocally will be one of the most uplifting movie experiences of your life.

Magnificently photographed by both Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, two of the most distinguished cinematographers of our time, The Reader is a miracle of delicacy, psychological insight and surprising hopefulness as one generation seeks retribution for the sins of their fathers. The acting is superb. Lena Olin has a scene near the end that deserves a supporting-actress Oscar; Ms. Winslet surpasses all promise; and as the boy who grows into a man paying a supreme price for the loss of innocence, David Kross has such range and sensitivity that he wraps himself around your heart and builds a permanent home there. I can think of no praise high enough for Stephen Daldry, whose compassionate direction obstinately resists the lure to indulge any sentimental slush. The Reader is a masterpiece.

rreed@observer.com