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A slightly satisfying ‘ho-hum’

POSTED: January 14, 2009 10:00 p.m.
/The Weinstein Co.

Kate Winslet and David Kross star in Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," one of a few films now in theaters that delves into issues surrounding the Holocaust.

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If you read this column with any kind of regularity, you know I am rarely at a loss for a strong, clear opinion.

But if asked whether to recommend "The Reader," the most definitive response I can give is a shrug.

"The Reader" is one of four films in release right now related in some way with WWII Germany and the Holocaust (the others: "Valkyrie," "Defiance" and "Good"). Awards season often prompts the release of dramas that, shall we say, capitalize on this greatest tragedy of the 20th century, but this sudden burst of Holocaust-themed films shows we have yet to fully reconcile the event in our collective consciousness.

"The Reader" examines the difficulties the postwar generation of Germans had in discovering what took place in their country just before they were born. It’s a fascinating, devastating question: how should young adults regard their parents’ generation, who at the very least allowed the Holocaust to happen?

So you should see it because it explores a cultural issue that still resonates.

Except, you’d never know the film is about such heavyweight topics from watching the first half. For a good hour, "The Reader" is a sex-soaked romp about a May-December romance.

Michael Berg (played in youth by David Kross, as an adult by Ralph Fiennes) is part of that postwar generation of Germans. When he is 15, he meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an older woman with whom he shares a summer fling.

At times the affair is a beautiful coming-of-age story. Hanna is uneducated, and she delights in hearing Michael read works of classical literature. It becomes a sort of intellectual foreplay, which is lovely.

However, this portion of the film is also filled with gratuitous nudity, and the whole thing devolves into the sort of movie I was forbidden from watching (but still watched) on Cinemax as a boy. It borders on European softcore.

So you should not see "The Reader."

Except, all the primary performances are quite strong. Winslet has already won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role. And the affair sets up the more dramatic second half.

The fling comes to an end, and several years later Michael is a law student. A professor takes Michael’s class to watch the trial of four women who are accused of war crimes. Hanna is one of the women on trial.

She speaks honestly about her involvement in the deaths of a group of Jewish prisoners, so the other women use her as a scapegoat. Michael must not only choose how to regard Hanna — as the woman he once loved or as part of the generation he now resents — but he must choose whether to divulge information that might help her case.

These conflicting storylines build to a climax that, unfortunately, did not work at all. The very scene that forces the personal romance storyline and the broad cultural themes to collide should have been poignant and tragic. Winslet’s Oscar moment. Instead, that’s when this film, which had already flirted with disaster, fell apart completely.

Other critics I know and respect, though, argue persuasively that it is a fitting climax.

And so, asked whether to recommend the film, I can only leave you with this overview of the main elements of the film. If such things intrigue you, see "The Reader." It is at least worthy of discussion.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.


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