Sex and the SS

The Reader
Running time 123 minutes
Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, David Kross

Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, from a screenplay by David Hare, based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, has lost much of the emotional power of the book, which was published in 1995, translated into 40 other languages and became the first German novel to top the New York Times’ best-seller list. The problem with the film arises from a miscalculation on the part of Mr. Daldry, and his screenwriter, Mr. Hare, which involves breaking up the linear narrative of the novel into flash-forwards and flashbacks over a period of 30 years. What remains intact from the book is the emotional and carnal relationship in post–World War II Germany between 15-year-old Michael Berg, played by David Kross, and 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, played by 33-year-old Kate Winslet.

Eight years after Hanna has suddenly disappeared from Michael’s life, he sees her again as a defendant in a gruesome war-crimes trial while he is a student in law school. He is so profoundly shocked by the revelations at the trial that he does not venture to see her again until her life sentence is commuted after 20 years. Ralph Fiennes plays the 46-year old Michael Berg, and though he has only one scene in person with Ms. Winslet in old-age makeup, the rupture of the acting synergy inherent in the switch diminishes the heart-rending effect made possible in the book, where Michael and Hanna are imagined to age together.

As it turns out, in both the book and the movie, Hanna was illiterate for most of her life, and hid her disability from the young Michael Berg, her streetcar company employers, and even the judge at her war-crimes trial. In the latter circumstance, it is as if she were more ashamed of being illiterate than of the atrocities committed with her tacit consent. She only learned to read and write late in her prison term, when Michael sent her tapes of the books he had read aloud to her during the year of their affair.

Mr. Daldry is quoted in the production notes on the subject of the banality of the Nazi Holocaust as a movie subject: “There have been 252 films made about the holocaust, and I hope there are at least as many more.” Still, he regards his own film as something of an exception, or, “an odd piece,” as he defines it, in that a lone survivor who has written a book on the horror is treated as a moral pillar instead of a pathetically weakened victim. Still, despite the efforts of Mr. Hare, Mr. Daldry, and producers Donna Gigliotti, Redmond Morris and the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, the Holocaust remains the elephant in the room that deadens the elements of surprise and suspense we have been conditioned to expect in screen narratives.

This is not to say that the performances of Ms. Winslet, Mr. Kross and Mr. Fiennes are anything less than convincingly heartfelt. This is especially true of Ms. Winslet, who is appearing later this month in Revolutionary Road, directed by husband Sam Mendes and adapted from the much-admired novel by Richard Yates. Ms. Winslet is to be reunited with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since they made box-office history together in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), after she made her sparkling debut at 19 in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). She has never been adequately appreciated for all of her strikingly offbeat performances, but now her time may have come at last. Finally, more than a footnote should be devoted to the curiously ambivalent performance of the legendary German actor Bruno Ganz, as young Michael Berg’s relentlessly skeptical questioner in law school.

Sex and the SS