Thursday, February 19, 2009


I have just come from a movie which I did not expect to move me the way this film did, and it has not one but two Oscar worthy performances by Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is a dense morality drama which deals with moral consequences of actions, ranging from the immorality of a teenager being seduced by and having a triste with an older woman to the much more repulsive immorality of the Holocaust. For two hour and 3 minutes one is immersed in the world of post WWII Germany from the mid-50s to 1995, and its attempt to expunge or exorcism the demon of anti-Semitism and murder from its conscience through the vehicle of tribunals, sentences, imprisonments. It is not a pretty world, and if one ever needed further proof of original sin and its on going consequences and effects on human beings, this movie is a profound cautionary tale about this very subject. Here is the official synopsis from the producers of the film...

"Synopsis: Though THE READER may boast the typical pedigree of a Holocaust film--acclaimed actors, a literary source, and an Oscar-baiting end-of-the-year release date--this drama has a significant... Though THE READER may boast the typical pedigree of a Holocaust film--acclaimed actors, a literary source, and an Oscar-baiting end-of-the-year release date--this drama has a significant difference: it focuses on a perpetrator, rather than the victims. Kate Winslet takes on the hefty supporting role of Hanna Schmitz, a woman who has an affair with Michael Berg (German actor David Kross), a 15-year-old boy in 1950s Germany. They spend their brief romance alternately making love and focusing on literature, with Michael reading everything from Chekov to Homer to his lover. Soon, Hanna abruptly disappears, and Michael returns to his normal life. Almost a decade later, Michael is studying law, when he sees Hanna again; she is on trial for her crimes as an S.S. guard during the war. Michael is torn between a desire for justice and his knowledge of a secret that may save Hanna. THE READER makes full use of hindsight and historical perspective. Based on the bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink, the story is framed by an older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) who deals with both his personal history and the collective past--and guilt--of the German people. This is a complex film that doesn't give the audience any easy answers; Hanna is undoubtedly guilty of horrific crimes, but she is a multilayered character who is always fascinating and always human, thanks to the terrific performance of Winslet, who plays Hanna over four decades. Director Stephen Daldry earned an Oscar nomination for his work on another literary adaptation, THE HOURS, and he deserves more praise for this polished film."

This film has been well reviewed and also fairly strongly critiqued, in particular for the issue of emotional distance and distancing. But in fact that is part of the subject matter of this film--- how we block out our previous sins from our conscious minds, how we seek to distance ourselves and anesthetize our feelings from the atrocities our culture or even we as individuals have been guilty of. To complain for example about the portrayal of Michael Berg by Ralph Fiennes when Berg is so damaged emotionally when he finds out what Hanna Schmidtz was really like that he has a hard time admitting or committing to anything is to not understand the character and message of this film.

Based on the German novel Der Vorlesser, "The Reader" in fact does a marvelous job of getting us involved in one of the great moral dilemmas and disasters of the twentieth century. How could it be possible that an advance literate generally well educated society like Germany could be dupped by Hitler and the Nazis and be led to perpetrate the crimes against the Jews that were indeed committed at Auschwitz and elsewhere? If you have any doubt about the extent of the atrocity, you should visit the Holocaust museum in either D.C. or Jerusalem, and take time to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors and read the works of Elie Wiesel, and make a trip to one or more of the camps in Germany. This is certainly the sort of education Mr. Ahmadinejad needs. But alas, even education is not enough of a protection against atrocity. Only a transformation of the human heart will finally do the job.

This movie starts as a story of a summer sexual dalliance between Hannah and Michael as a 15 year old. Michael is totally smitten, and Hannah is totally in control. There are scenes of nudity early on in this movie which earn it its R rating, but lest you think this movie will be a romance or tragedy about love lost and being love lorn thereafter for the remainder of one's life, you would be catching only one part of the nuance of this story. Why is that Hannah likes to be read to? Why is it that she seemingly can't read the menu at a restaurant? These questions, seemingly trivial to a young man in love, turn into vital evidence, evidence that could have affected Hannah's sentencing at the war crimes trial, when she is accused of writing the report that condemned various Jews to death, a report, she could never have written. This however does not absolve her since she participated in such atrocities, but it certainly complicates the moral calculus going on in Michael's mind. Does he help her get a lighter sentence? Does this make him a bad person? And later, does he help Hannah get reestablished in the real world after 20 years in jail, or not? It is precisely the issue of moral ambivalence and emotional distancing that this film is so poignantly exploring.

I found this movie moving and compelling, and wish it well at the Oscars. I suspect Kate Winslet will win for either this film or for Revolutionary Road. It is a cold and snowy movie about how cold and distant a soul can become even whilst sharing great intimacy, and it was the perfect film for this cold and snowy day here in Lexington as it suited the tenor of the time.


lsm said...

Wow,another movie to watch. I can't believe we have had so many good ones the last few months!!!! Thanks for sharing your review.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Witherington,

As a young man wanting to walk in purity before the Lord, I am curious to hear your thoughts on how you are able to grasp such valuable lessons from a film such as this without allowing your spirit to be defiled by the sexual immorality so graphically displayed in this film?

I desire the heart of Job in the 31st chapter as he makes "a covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully upon a woman" and David who "will set no unclean thing before my eyes."

Paul tells us to watch out for even "a hint of sexual immorality" (Eph. 5:3) and our Lord Jesus exhorted us "If your eye is good, your whole body is full of light."(Matt. 6:22)

I am sincerely asking, not trying to lecture you. Please email any thoughts if you don't desire to comment back here on your blog.

Thank you,

Ryan in KC

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ryan:

This is a very fair question. You seem to be assuming that just because a man sees a woman partially or unclothed lust will result. This is not necessarily the case, especially when in my case I am well beyond the age of raging hormones. The real issue whether the stimulus is a movie or a work of art, or seeing a person directly or someone's comment, is how you respond to it. If you know you have a particular weakness in this area, then by all means don't go to the art gallery or the movie etc. But if you know you have the strength and spiritual maturity, then it need not be a big deal, because you are not going to respond to the situation in an inappropriate way. Ancient Israelite culture was very different from ours, not least because men and women tended to be entirely hidden, even their faces in the case of some women. What this did paraodxically enough was that when men actually did see a woman without clothes (e.g. David and Bathsheba) it was so surprising and so stimulating that an inappropriate and immoral response was more likely to follow.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. to Ryan. One thing I forgot to mention of course is that the 'young men' being counseled in various of the texts you are alluding to should not be going to R rated movies anyway, as I have said before and would say now. This is why we have such movie ratings in the first place.

Unknown said...

I wasn't interested in attending a movie that was billed with a Lolita-type plot. But critics' acclaim of Kate Winslet's performance propelled me to go see The Reader when it came to a nearby theater. Unlike the young man in this blog whose focus is on the sexual relationship between the two main characters at the beginning of the movie, I was more bothered by the disconnectedness between the intimate relationship of Hannah & Michael against the backdrop of several decades following the Holocaust.

I found some solace in the title of the film. Hannah appears stunted in her emotional maturity, unable to return a simple response of love when Michael so desperately seeks it. However, Hannah cries freely and is moved by the stories read to her by Michael. The "reader", Michael, is the conduit for her true love, the stories hidden behind words she cannot access. Homer and Chekov are in essence strangers to Hannah yet, they have a tremendous impact on her that they are not aware of. How many of us have shared such an experience with books? Hannah is in essence a stranger to Michael and has an effect on his life, a lifelong effect that she did not imagine or plan when she let him inside her door a second time. Hannah's actions have more dire consequences as her stunted emotion toward Jews trapped in a bombed church building, has a lasting effect on two generations of strangers.

We cannot take lightly, whether we are authors, victim or offender, young or old, the residue we leave behind in the lives, including those of strangers, we come in contact with. The secret in this movie is not the illicit love affair between a minor and an adult, it's the painful realization of how strangers can leave lifelong wounds that may or may not heal.