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The Reader

September 7, 2010

The Reader (2008)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Actors: David Kross, Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes

Synopsis: A dissolute lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), reflects back on his wartime affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet).

Review: Watching the last few drawn-out sequences of The Reader, I became aware of its uncanny similarity both in terms of structure and theme to that other recent film on Germany’s murky past – The Lives of Others. In some respects The Reader is a near simulacrum of The Lives of Others, with its ethically dubious merging of the personal and the political. In the case of The Lives of Others it was an operatic character study of a greyer-than-grey Stasi-operative whose conscience slowly turns when asked to be party to the slow and systematic disintegration of an esteemed writer’s livelihood and civil liberties. What The Reader has done is to craft an allegory about German guilt over its Nazi history, through the dramatisation of the life of a dissolute lawyer who gradually begins to deconstruct an enigmatic affair he had with an older women in his teenage years, when she is later put on trial and imprisoned for her role in the mass extermination of Jewish prisoners during the Second World War. What I objected to in The Lives of Others and recurs in The Reader is the casual misuse of such catastrophic real-life events for luxuriously-disguised yet still fatuously sentimental stories of bourgeois catharsis. I could accept it if the personal stories were in service of a genuine spirit of historical interrogation, but in both movies I felt as if the history was merely a blithe and simplistic mechanism designed to embellish what are essentially upmarket soap operas. Perhaps one area in which The Reader trumps The Lives of Others is through its slight attempt to mitigate its otherwise simplistic moral framework, by giving the Jewish survivor a voice and an important scene at the film’s near-climax. It’s sadly telling though that director, Stephen Daldry, sees the medium of film as little more than a vehicle for narrative and other literary tropes. Perhaps if Daldry and filmmakers of his ilk ceased to conceive of cinema as an exercise in the exhibition of literary taste, we might get more telling stories and social narratives than we do here. (January 2009)

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