2018 has been rife with very public anti-Semitism, discrimination against sex workers amid SESTA/FOSTA and increased policing of consensual sex in online spaces, and continued pushes for accountability through #MeToo and #TimesUp. In 2008, romanticized Oscar bait about a relationship between a Nazi and a teenage boy with generous amounts of full-frontal nudity hit movie theatres. Max DeCurtins unpacks how much of a difference a decade can make in our perception of a film in this rich, multifaceted review of The Reader.
The Reader might be a movie about the Holocaust.
It might also be a movie about inter-generational anger and guilt over the Holocaust.
It might, instead, be a movie about love and literacy.
It might be a frame story.
In fact, The Reader is a movie about abuse and its effects, and how to make Oscar bait by having everyone just look fucking sad for the whole thing. The Reader is a film where alacrity goes to die.
Oh, and people are naked a fair bit.
Perhaps the opening paragraph of Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review says it best:
“The Reader” is a scrupulously tasteful…film about an erotic affair that turns to love. It is also, more obliquely, about the Holocaust and the generation of Germans who came of age after that catastrophe. This, at any rate, is what the film would have us believe it’s about, though mostly it involves Kate Winslet, her taut belly and limbs gleaming under the caressing light, deflowering a very surprised-looking teenage boy who grows up to be a depressed-looking Ralph Fiennes.
With the understanding that no Nazis end up with a shattered schnozz, which is honestly rather a disappointment, let’s re-view The Reader, which 2018 me can’t believe my 2008 self might have actually liked.
As an adult, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is a lawyer, lonely divorcé, and father of an adult daughter living in Berlin. As a teenager, Michael (David Kross) had his world altered by an unlikely affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an older woman—and, as it turns out, a former SS guard at Auschwitz—who helped him out when a budding case of scarlet fever had Michael booting in a soggy alley during a downpour. Returning some months later to thank her for her help, he finds himself seduced, and they begin an unlikely relationship in which Hanna uses Michael for sex and demands, in return for putting out, that he read to her from the literature he studies for school.
Michael and Hanna carry on this brief affair, with all its moments of delight and struggle, until one day Michael shows up to Hanna’s apartment to find her vanished without a trace. Ten years later, Hanna’s impudicity in this relationship reads more like an abuser than a maladjusted malcontent. Some years later, as a bangs-sporting law student, young-adult Michael walks into a courtroom with his seminar cohort and discovers Hanna among a group of defendants on trial for Nazi war crimes—specifically, locking 300 women in a church that caught fire during a storm and not letting them out when it was obvious that the fire would kill all the prisoners.
As the trial proceeds, it becomes clear that Hanna will take the fall for the other defendants, and Michael can’t fathom why until it dawns on him that Hanna doesn’t know how to read or write. Michael’s vacillation over whether or not to come forward with this revelation, against Hanna’s apparent desire to preserve her secret, forms the dramatic apogee of the film. Bruno Ganz, as Professor Rohl, gets up in Michael’s face, but seeing as how Michael’s already dead on the inside, and his vacillation was never more than half-hearted, he takes no action. Truly, this contributes like nothing else to the vapidity of the film. The wrenching question, the central inner conflict just kind of…fizzles.
The film rather clumsily sets up its central conflict early on; by the end of the first 20 minutes, after Michael’s had a few clandestine visits with Hanna, we hear Michael’s high school literature teacher telling us that the whole notion of character revolves around the idea of information that said character, for whatever motivations, wishes to keep hidden. I grant that if you’d seen The Reader in 2008 without having read the book or hearing any spoilers, this line from the lit teacher wouldn’t have held any premonitory significance; you’d have assumed that the line referred, in that omniscient viewer kind of way, to Michael keeping his affair with Hanna secret. Of course, later in the film it refers to Hanna’s shame over her illiteracy, and the consequences she endures as a result thereof. Ten years later, after re-viewing a number of movies that I’ve criticized for being obvious in their narratives, acting, or musical scoring, The Reader stands out to me as yet another example of a film not trusting its audience to be smart enough to figure things out.
After the court pronounces a sentence of life imprisonment for Hanna, the rest of the film truly begins to feel like a very protracted dénouement. This part of The Reader spends more time on Ralph Fiennes’ Michael, who looks and inflects a little like Liam Neeson’s Daniel in Love Actually—which is to say, deadened. We get confirmation that Michael divorced his wife Gertrude early in their daughter Julia’s life. Unpacking his things in his new apartment, Michael comes across the old books he read to Hanna during their brief affair. This inspires him to send tapes of himself reading books to Hanna in prison. Armed with Michael’s tapes and copies of the books from the prison library, Hanna finally teaches herself to read and write—before eventually hanging herself ahead of her impending parole. She leaves all her money—via Michael—to Ilana Mather, the daughter of Rose, a woman who survived the church fire that killed 300 women under guard by Hanna and her fellow Nazis. Michael speaks to Ilana in New York just before the end of the film, who tells him she can’t accept the money; he proposes a donation to an organization combating illiteracy, which Ilana tartly describes as “not a very Jewish problem.” The final scene of the movie shows Michael taking Julia to Hanna’s grave in the cemetery by the church where they encountered a children’s choir on a biking trip so many years ago, and there, Michael finally begins to tell his story.
Ten years later, I find the framing of The Reader incredibly scattershot and weird. Adult Michael’s narrative clearly wants to lend the movie emotional weight through its focus on the Holocaust, but the film actually spends most of its time focusing on teenage and young-adult Michael and how his relationship with Hanna affected him. Director Stephen Daldry peppers the mostly chronological narrative with scenes from middle-aged Michael’s life; I think these scenes, more than anything, purport to remind the viewer that the bulk of the film forms a series of extended flashbacks or reveries. For example, Daldry sandwiches a short and narratively almost useless scene of Michael and Julia in a restaurant between the end of Michael’s affair and the start of the law school seminar that will unexpectedly bring Hanna back into Michael’s life.
I don’t think anyone would deny that it’s possible for someone, however briefly you know them, to mess with your world and complicate your mental and emotional life. I don’t think the nature of your relationship to that someone even matters all that much, though culturally we certainly give more weight to erstwhile lovers/romantic partners, however much or little that’s actually warranted. The hangover can take an irritatingly long time to fade, if indeed it ever fades completely. In my case, the hangover prompted a round of therapy, and I think it’s reasonable to ask whether Michael did the same. After all, The Reader presents someone presumably in his late forties or early fifties who’s still living a miserable life on account of an affair he had at 15. Bish, please.
Let’s get one thing straight: Michael Berg is a dick. In adolescence, he consistently blows off his friends so he can get laid. In young adulthood, as a law student, he practically ignores the flirtations of Marthe (Karoline Herfurth) until, almost inexplicably, one scene shows them having sex. In middle age, he keeps his daughter Julia at arm’s length. He doesn’t reply when Hanna, having finally learned to read and write, explicitly asks him to write. He shares precious little with his mother. In short, he performs the same kind of disappearing act that Hanna pulled on him.
It’s a good thing the Bergs aren’t Jewish. Not calling your mother puts you on the express train to Hell.
But The Reader is not, per se, about Michael Berg being a dick. I think the framing especially would make more sense if we understand The Reader as a film about abuse and its effects, one in which Michael is never able to heal and instead turns loose his anguish on other people through emotional withdrawal and generally disappearing when he’s most needed. In a time when society can glimpse some measure of progress in #MeToo but also witness the Catholic Church somehow still managing to escape an existential reckoning, The Reader can be an irritating film to watch. Nico Muhly’s score doesn’t help matters; it’s both a bit too minimalist and yet simultaneously too sentimental, through its over-reliance on winding, aimless, plaintive passages for the woodwinds, especially the oboe. It’s like the Kenny G of woodwind writing—if Kenny G wrote music like Tobias Picker.
Understanding, then, that the film is ultimately about abuse and the asymmetrical power dynamic between Hanna and Michael, and with a nod back to Dargis’ review in the New York Times, let’s talk about people being naked for a hot minute.
Since, as I write this, Tumblr has announced it intends to strip all adult content from the platform the week after this re-view lands, I’d be remiss not to mention that one reason The Reader made waves in 2008 wasn’t because of its nominal Holocaust subject matter or its depiction of emotional abuse, but because it had a scene containing full-frontal male nudity. Just in case there were any doubt, frontal male nudity in film remains, decades after the sexual revolution, exceedingly rare. All the more remarkable, then, that in The Reader the peen in question belonged to a mere 18-year-old kid, who had to stand in a bathtub while a fully-clothed Kate Winslet scrubbed him down with soap and a washcloth, like some kind of role-reversed Manet.
And if you thought getting teen peen onscreen was a tough sell, imagine for a moment that Hanna Schmitz had instead been Hans Schmitz, seducing a 15-year-old Michael Berg coming to grips with his sexuality. It’s not at all a stretch to say that a May-December situation showing frontal nudity where both parties are male would almost categorically never make it on film. In other words, it’s almost impossible to overstate how wild it is that Kross and Winslet’s little scrub-a-dub scene even made it to viewers’ eyes in the first place.
Though I’m not sure I agree with her characterization of the sex scenes as “child pornography”—that’s an actual crime that’s probably way under-prosecuted, and is superficially the proximate cause of Tumblr’s impending porn purge—Thelma Adams, writing in Huffington Post, very correctly highlights the double standard inherent in how our culture receives a sexual relationship with an adult when the minor is a boy instead of a girl. One of the few critics who seems to have pinpointed Hanna and Michael’s abusive dynamic, Adams is trying to tell us, in a way, how fucked up it is that it takes a major Hollywood motion picture like The Reader even to get people thinking that sex with a male minor is still, in fact, statutory.
It’s certainly undeniable that the notable absence of male nudity in film assumes a straight, male viewer imposing his cultural masculinity on the use of nudity in film and the reception thereof. Kate Winslet is, after all, naked an awful lot in this movie—something a straight male viewer would want to see. The dearth of screen peen points also, as Ryan Gilbey describes in an interview with James Ivory published in The Guardian, to a skewed culture in which men get to dictate the terms of their screen nudity in a way that women don’t—which is to say that men are afforded the privilege of refusing to be naked on screen, as Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer did in their contracts for Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name. Read Gilbey’s article again: James Ivory—who had to hide his relationship with Ismail Merchant for the several decades that they were together and had expressly included some of the explicitness of Aciman’s book in his adapted screenplay, only to be foiled by the no-nudity clause—isn’t buying that shit. Neither, I think, should we.
All this is to say that The Reader, with its place in a small pantheon of films that dare to show a man with his kit off—something for which Stephen Daldry waited two years, until Kross turned 18, to get—strikes me as especially weird in a time when, perhaps more than any other, we are being called to see if we’re really ready to stand up for gender and sexual diversity. The very rarity of The Reader’s depiction of sexual gazes—for a fleeting moment, as Hanna sneaks a peek at the lithe body of the adolescent Michael as he undresses for his bath, we shed the male gaze, or at least the straight male gaze, and step into Hanna’s eyes—practically screams our discomfort with a diversity of roles of gender and sexual power. Recent articles over the last few days have stressed how Tumblr’s blanket ban will likely disadvantage LGBTQ and other types of communities, and so even today the answer thus seems to be: no, we’re not ready—at least for now—to admit a multitude of facets into the distribution of acceptable sexual and gender expression.
But this is not the only way that The Reader intrudes into the middle of a difficult zeitgeist ten years after its release. Anti-Semitism seems to be having a moment—not that it ever went away, but as with anything, it tends not to get much attention when it’s not in the headlines—and since the film drapes itself with all the moral and ethical baggage of the Holocaust and the world’s reckoning with it, it’s worth a few words about how we deal with critical reception of movies like The Reader when anti-Semitism forms the locus of one’s critical commentary.
That The Reader garnered a Best Picture nomination sparked no end of outcry in the anti-Semitism department; writing in Slate, Ron Rosenbaum drags the film as a “heartwarming fable about the wonders of literacy and its ability to improve the life of an Auschwitz mass murderer.” But this kind of criticism is, dare I say it, kind of overblown. As someone on the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum, I think our lot, across the spectrum, have sometimes been guilty of fishing for reasons to be indignant. I’ve seen—and continue to see—what Jewishness that defines itself primarily by its ability to find the anti-Semitic angle in almost anything looks like. It’s not a good look. It’s sanctimonious, and that’s a behavior that I’d much rather leave to other people.
I wince in particular when Jews invoke the Holocaust as part of a—pace David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and any number of other commentators—tribalistic response to any perceived offense, to use the au courant term. You can cheapen the Holocaust, but I don’t think The Reader is any guiltier in this regard. Rosenbaum’s piece in particular, dating to February 2009, feels like an artifact of proto-callout culture. It screams at 90 decibels when it takes no more than 50 decibels to discuss all the ways in which it’s obvious that The Reader, while perhaps a more ‘serious’ movie than the mass-market stuff, doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture—on the merits.
The point isn’t that, on the surface, The Reader appears to humanize an ex-Nazi who, for the record, still hasn’t gotten punched. It’s that we never got much material on Hanna to begin with—or on Michael, for that matter. There isn’t enough depth to the affair in between the extremes of Michael’s teenage infatuation and the screaming fights he has with Hanna.
It’s a disjointed film that’s not really about the Holocaust, or generational conscience/guilt, or illiteracy, or even love, but nevertheless wants us to wallow in the sadness of all those things. It’s overwrought—for example, in the use of parallel imagery such as the sequence in which, preparing for the sentencing, both Hanna and Michael get dressed and tie their ties—but not hideously so. The true problem with The Reader is that it fails to see what the movie really is about—abuse—and so, ten years later, I’m left to wonder how it ended up in the Best Picture category alongside stronger films like Frost/Nixon. Perhaps it’s true what they say about Oscar bait: just add Nazis.