Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Reader

"If people like you don't learn from what happened to people like me then what the hell is the point of anything."

That Holocaust-related line, a microcosm of the entire movie, comes from a very Jewish professor halfway through The Reader. If you miss to absorb that point, you won't appreciate the message that the movie is trying to tell. Actually you probably wouldn't appreciate the movie at all.

In Germany in the Summer of 1958, 15 year-old Michael Berg spends most of the first third of the movie naked, having a cold sexual affair with an equally naked 36 year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). The age difference is considerable, and while it may have some significance (haven't thought about it too much yet), that's not the main point. The affair is abruptly extinguished, and years later an adult Michael happens to see Hanna's trial-- accused of atrocities when she was an SS guard in the Holocaust. Michael knows a secret that may exonerate her, but to reveal it would also be to reveal their taboo relationship.

Ok, up to this point was the part of the movie I enjoyed. After that, the in-between-the-lines started to overwhelm the lines themselves. Hanna is found guilty and receives a life sentence in jail. Many years later, Michael attempts to reconnect with her in some way by sending her recordings of himself reading books and notes, just as he read to her during their affair. Based on the tapes, she learns to read and begins to write letters back, which go unanswered.

See, her illiteracy is a metaphor for... something. Perhaps her inability to understand the gravity of the atrocities that were committed in the Holocaust. She was definitely guilty, by the way, at least to a certain extent. Learning to read while suffering in jail for her crimes is another symbol for gaining understanding. And if I keep talking about it with the benefit of having been thinking about it for the past few hours I run the risk of making it sound better than it really is.

The second half of the movie is heavy handed and boring and made me forget how much I appreciated the first half. As merely a movie it makes no narrative sense. As an allegory for German guilt it may be brilliant, but to look at it in such a light requires such detachment from the reality of events on screen that I'd find myself no long applauding the movie itself but merely my ability to untangle its buried themes.

The Reader surprised people the most by getting an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And now, having seen all five nominees, I totally agree. There are more deserving movies, yes, like The Dark Knight or WALL-E-- far more mainstream and accessible movies, but why not? Oscar nominations are not just for movies like The Reader, which have their meaning buried deep under layer upon layer of heavy intellectual metaphor. Makes a review of the movie useless because the only types of people that would be satisfied by it are the ones that would rather be doing the reviewing. As for me, I'd rather watch a movie to be entertained, or maybe enlightened-- not just given another way to be confused.

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