Sunday, 8 February 2009

Reading and watching The Reader

During the autumn of 2001, the Resident Fan Boy brought home about a dozen books passed along by a workmate of his, no doubt because she was trying to clean out her bookshelves. They were novels I normally wouldn't have read, so I viewed it as a opportunity, and dutifully started through them. It was hard going, especially in those weeks limping along after the shock of September 11th, when everyone seemed overwhelmed. As far as I can figure, all of the books were on Oprah Winfrey's reading list from her popular "book club". Gawd, they were depressing.

I'm glad I persevered, though, because I found two gems: While I Was Gone by Sue Miller (I've since read most of her novels), and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. I maintain that good art is not depressing; these books were good enough to rise above their tragic story lines.

Yesterday, the Resident Fan Boy and I (in our continuing and doomed bid to see as many Oscar-nominated performances before Academy Awards Night as possible) went to see The Reader. This was the first day OC Transpo buses were running after a two-month strike, so in honour of the occasion, we missed the bus. The bus we did catch had a solicitous bus driver who allowed elderly and disabled riders to actually sit down before taking off. I wonder how long this will last before the drivers are back to their surly selves.

We arrived just in time to suffer through a Myley Cyrus video, but we had been prepared by Marie's preview (thanks, Marie!) to look away at the right moment. I mean the opening scene of David Kross's character getting violently sick, not the Myley Cyrus video, although, in the case of the latter, looking away [and industrial strength ear plugs] would be advisable.

It's been over seven years since I read the book, which is probably a good thing, so I didn't waste too much time comparing the two. I am reasonably sure that the book did not include the young protagonist touring Auschwitz (without a soul in sight --- is that even possible?), but on the whole, I found the performances satisfying and the plot feasible if unsurprising. (I had remembered the two revelations about Hannah [Kate Winslet's character] from the book.) What I don't remember is being puzzled and appalled by the young man's failure to intervene. I think the book may have outlined his motives, so I supposed I'll have to reread it. As it was, I spent a good part of the movie wanting to shake young Michael Berg. And also wondering why Ralph Fiennes fails to age between 1977 and 1995. Who does he think he is, Francesca Annis?

The movie left me wondering who was the most damaged, in the end. Hannah, for all her paradoxes, is oddly true to herself, with a moral code that is only slightly incomprehensible. I felt somehow that it's Michael who is truly emotionally and morally crippled. He tells Lena Olin's character towards the end: "She (Hannah) has done worse to other people," but I don't think it's Hannah who has broken him. Michael is fifteen in 1958 and so was born in 1943. In the uncommunicative and stilted family scenes, it seems that Michael has already been smothered by the heavy burden of shame and silence his generation inherited from their parents who somehow found themselves unable to halt the horrors in which Hannah has participated more directly, and perhaps with less hypocrisy.

I've been amusing myself with trivia from IMDB: David Kross, who plays the young Michael, had to wait until after his birthday to play the sex scenes with Kate Winslet. He was born in 1990 and is just two years older than my elder daughter. The Resident Fan Boy and I agreed that the early scenes would be a fifteen-year-old boy's dream come true, but we later amended that to include any male, period. Gorgeous or not (and she is, damn her), I'd have no problem with her winning the Oscar for this. It's a difficult character skillfully portrayed. Let's just hope she's prepared a better speech this time.


Marie said...

I'm not sure about the every boy's dream thing - or rather, maybe a dream until you have to do it, but then excruciatingly embarrassing. Especially if he's a virgin and had to have his first experience of sex being getting naked and pretending to schtup Kate Winslet in front of a huge crew of film-makers, and, ultimately, the world. What if anything stirred? Gaaah!

Persephone said...

Well, I wasn't referring to David Kross specifically. He did say in an interview (or was it Kate Winslet's interview?) that only three people were on set (I'm assuming this was in addition to the two actors), and the trick was getting to the part where it seemed funny.

Iheartfashion said...

I thought Kate Winslet's performance was great, but I couldn't get past the part about her being more ashamed of her illiteracy than about having been a Nazi prison guard. I haven't read the book, so perhaps her failure to save herself is more plausible there.

Persephone said...

Hannah, as Kate Winslet plays her, has a very definite (if limited) mind-set. She's not stupid, but she's not deep either. I think she's thinking in survival terms: I must work. No one can find out that I can't read. Her response to the prisoners trapped in the burning barn is very telling: "It was our job to guard them." I don't think it has anything to do with Nazism or anti-Semitism; this is the black-and-white way she sees the world. You do your job. You do whatever you can to keep your job. That's it. Describing her as a Nazi is, I think, misleading.
As for covering up her illiteracy at all costs, I don't think anyone work for literacy agencies would find the length to which Hannah is prepared to go one bit surprising.