Late into "The Reader," the movie's young German protagonist, Michael Berg (David Kross), visits Auschwitz concentration camp well after the end of WWII. The camera surveys the dreary landscape and finds several giant cages of shoes. It's a scene as superfluous as the movie itself is irksome.
What does Michael hope to discover on this trip? What do the filmmakers? After a sensuous introductory act, "The Reader" descends into a series of dismaying contradictions regarding the moral toxins of the Holocaust -- which still pollute postwar Germany.
Stephen Daldry directed "The Reader" from a script David Hare adapted from Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel, and they've swapped moral purpose for the artsy tastefulness that made their collaboration on "The Hours" such an attractive wallow. But using handsome camerawork, good editing and one of Philip Glass's designer scores to illuminate the inner lives of a bunch of unhappy women is one thing. "The Reader" is a bigger gamble: It leaves the Holocaust at the feet of a generation born just as it was ending. Michael is innocent of his country's crimes. But a kind of guilt stains him nonetheless.
He takes that trip to Auschwitz in the 1960s with a lot on his mind. (Forget that the movie makes it look like a hop and a skip from Germany.) Michael has just discovered that the older woman with whom he once enjoyed an intense summer fling, a streetcar fare-taker named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), is on trial for war crimes. Hanna was a Nazi prison guard during the war, and the centerpiece of her dirty work involved standing by, with five other women, while a church crammed with 300 Jews burned to nothing. Years later, Michael is a law student in a course taught by Bruno Ganz on German guilt and, as part of the curriculum, he must endure watching his former lover's trial. That he spent all those weeks blissfully unaware of Hanna's past while he read great literature to her makes him one of her victims, too.
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Forget whether the survivors of her crimes can bring themselves to forgive her. Can Michael? "The Reader" pivots between Kross' thoughtful performance as the younger man and the character's older self, played by Ralph Fiennes, and the movie is about his reconciliation. The filmmakers might not want us to think of Michael as someone who also survived Hanna, but watching this man vacillate between shame, nostalgia and anger, that thought crossed my mind.
Winslet, meanwhile, suffuses this part with great integrity (and so little German accent), but the film shields her from the horrors of her character's transgressions. It's not a shock to see Winslet in a role like this. There is almost nothing she can't act her way through. But her movie star elegance presents a smoke screen for the character's morality. It feels like a sin not to like her.
So much of a movie is driven by images. What we don't see can often be as powerful as what we do. And what we don't see in "The Reader" -- the feet that walked in all those caged shoes, say -- constitutes a vulgarity of omission. Hearing about Hanna's crimes is not quite the same as watching her commit them. That the criminal in this instance is Winslet demands more than hearsay to convey that this lovely woman could be the perpetrator of any atrocity greater than that Nancy Meyer movie "The Holiday." The filmmakers are comfortable showing Hanna's sexual nudity when, really, we need proof of her moral nakedness. Otherwise, what we're told radically alters the meaning of what we see. Now, it's "The Sorrow and the Pretty."
This, of course, is a matter of taste and tastefulness. The trial acknowledges that the Holocaust was heinous while keeping intact the essential purity of its star. "The Reader" goes even further in building what amounts to a consecration of a war criminal, sentimentalizing something that is beyond sentiment. The trial's outcome hinges on whether Hanna can read. And here the film stages its most galling moral idea -- that the shame of possible illiteracy might outweigh the crime of mass murder.
After we've spent so many scenes watching a repentant old Hanna educate herself with her ex-lover's help, the movie tries a last-minute effort to put its sentimentality in perspective. Michael pays a beseeching visit to one of Hanna's survivors (a cuttingly good Lena Olin), who tells him that the Holocaust was not therapy, despite all evidence here to the contrary. Hanna may be full of apology. But it's unseemly to plead for an audience to accept it.