There is an interesting bonus feature included with Charlie Kaufman’s recent film, Synedoche, New York. A round table of movie critic bloggers discuss the finer points of the film, but more interestingly, they opine on the craft of filmmaking in general. At one point during the discussion, someone mentions why Kaufman’s work is often misunderstood or under-appreciated by the mainstream. I fully expected a very elitist answer from this left-of-center group involving descriptions that would even make an oenophile scratch their head. But the answer, instead, was a very simplistic one. In short, they mentioned that the difference between much of cinema as entertainment and the “art for art’s sake” side is that the former tells the audience what to think and when to think it.
The conflict emerges in the first act, develops in the second, and eventually gets solved in the third; and you already know this, and merely have to follow along. The bumbling sidekick breaks the tension with a joke, you laugh. Music swells here, you tear up. We’re told to be sympathetic with the hero, made to detest the villain, and fully expect the former to undo the latter in the end. Call, response.
In fact, the stories themselves aren’t always the issue. We all like a good story, and some of the most complex films are based on the simplest of ideas. But what the round table was discussing is that the biggest difference is in how those stories are told. How they’re developed, and how much of the development is left with the audience. Enough is left open-ended so that you as a viewer are left with the final task of interpretation, as most of art also asks you to do. Music: it’s what separates a symphony from commercial jingles. Poetry: Pablo Neruda from Hallmark. Literature: the novel from its press release. And if we, on any level, consider the form to be capable of art, then we should expect nothing different from the outer class of movies.
The Reader is this kind of film. Not only does it not tell you what to think, but it almost seems to go to great lengths to keep a tidy thinking of the movie impossible. It’s both a troubling and engrossing tale that mixes together a coming-of-age story of sexual awakening, the Holocaust, shame and repression, and generational divides. And at the center of it all is the more basic line between good and evil.
The story opens with the simple act of the kindness of a stranger. While on his way home from school, Michael Berg (David Kross) suffers from a bout of sickness that leaves him almost too weak to finish the journey. While he is resting in front of some houses, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) stops to help the boy long enough so that he can make his way home. This chance encounter eventually spirals into an affair between the teenage boy and the older woman. What begins as sexual exploration quickly turns into an intimately distant bond between the two, as Michael begins reading works of literature to Hanna as a prelude to the escapades. Their secret life is cut short when one day she just leaves town, but their summer together will forever have an impact on Michael’s life.
Years later, when Michael is at university to study law, his class attends a set of trials for Nazi war crimes. It is there that he sees that Hannah is one of the defendants, and through the course of the trial is confronted with not only what she did during the war, but what much of the generation before him had either done or allowed to happen. And through it all, he is haunted by a secret that could affect the trial and change the course of both of their lives.
I won’t detail much of the rest of the story, for fear of dropping spoilers, although it should be noted that the movie was mis-marketed. Tag lines for the film bill it as a “thriller,” when it is the farthest thing from a thriller. Mystery is a bit closer to the mark, but it’s not much of a mystery either. The secret is revealed in obvious detail roughly halfway through the film, but that’s little matter since it is a much more accomplished drama. And the revelation of the secret only makes both what preceded it and what follows all the more messy.
Throughout, the film is strongly held up by expert acting. Kross and Winslet are both fantastic, as is Ralph Fiennes, who plays an older Michael Berg recounting much of the events with flashbacks. The subtleties of the performances are what make the story and the problems resound. The confusion and excitement of Michael’s early trysts quickly transform into the shame of a nation. And Hannah’s involvement as a desolate and shamed party to war crimes ages her both physically and emotionally as the movie progresses.
The film asks a lot of questions for which it doesn’t have satisfactory answers, and it leaves them ringing in the ears of the viewer. What makes someone a monster, and what is the delineation between a monster and merely monstrous acts? What if some of those acts are technically legal? Even if they are, aren’t we obligated to a greater sense of morality or justice? And what if that justice also means revealing a secret that could lessen their crimes? What if they never ask for forgiveness to justify the relief? And even if they did, what if we’re unwilling to do so?
That’s the challenge with untidy cinema. It can often ask messy questions with still messier answers. And certainly with The Reader, you’re left a bit more troubled and uneasy for the journey. But you’re also thinking. The antagonist isn’t completely vile, and a hero doesn’t quite exist, and the whole affair paints humanity in varying shades of broken — some more obviously so than others, but none without their share of cracks. In this sense, the movie rewards repeat viewing; not that things suddenly become more clear, or the characters more easily pigeonholed, but they at least allow you to continue picking up pieces.
The video looks very nice, and works with its muted color palette effectively. Given that much of the scenes are bathed in an overcast and desolate look – to match the mood of many of the events, or simply of interior locations – it doesn’t jump out as an overtly dramatic transfer, but it still looks sharp. Detail is well-defined, black levels look solid, and there are no overt compression artifacts. Overall it’s a solid 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer providing the film with an impressively appropriate presentation.
As a dramatic film, the soundtrack doesn’t receive a very robust workout, but the audio did sound adequately spaced. Again, this is not the vehicle for acrobatic audio mixing, but it holds up well. Perhaps the best example of surround presence is the quite beautiful music for the end titles. One thing I will note is that for some reason the default audio option is not the best selection. It defaults to 5.1 Dolby Digital, but you will need to go into the setup menu to select the 5.1 Dolby HD option. This HD option does bring some noticeable separation and brilliance to the mix, again most noticeable during the isolated music cues.
The extras included with the film are a bit of a letdown on some major levels. It’s not that we aren’t treated to “stuff”, because we are. But that stuff seems underwhelming. On a technical level, it’s all standard definition (and I would still love to know why current films insist on shooting professional bonus material without hi-def). And if ever there was a movie that could do with a commentary track or two, it would be this one. But instead we’re left with some more token behind-the-scenes tracks and standard filler.
The highlight of the bunch is a set of deleted scenes. In this instance, deleted scenes actually enhance the film. Granted they were cut for good reason, as already The Reader is pushing its ability to maintain pace for two hours. But the deleted scenes offer some additional glimpses into the characters that are rewarding for supplemental viewing. At over 41 minutes in total, the deleted material either reveals new scenes and situations or extends sections of the film.
The rest of the bonus materials are standard fare. In addition to the trailer, there is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film that is interesting, if a tad generic. Another shows a conversation with the director, Stephen Daldry, and the young lead actor about casting a relative unknown in a demanding dramatic role. A feature with Kate Winslet shows the time-intensive task of aging her for the different periods throughout the film. Another short feature looks at the surprisingly young film composer who provided the score. And finally a short segment interviews one of the crew working on the film, who actually dealt with some of the film’s cultural baggage while growing up in, and eventually leaving, post-Nazi Germany.
The Reader is a difficult film to like, as it neither makes you feel good, nor does it leave you with an obviously moral message. But it’s a much easier film to recommend for its dramatic power. It shines a light on the dirt of humanity and, again, forces you to think. It’s untidy art, to be sure, but it is nevertheless very effective. But neither is it perfect. The pacing is effective, if a bit slow, and when dealing with a subject like the Holocaust, shouldn’t there be a bit more of the story that is morally obvious and cut and dried? The film does seem to present aspects of the drama and relationships at the expense of some history. But overall, it gets much more right than not. And it’s such an unassuming example of sheer quality filmmaking that you might wonder why we don’t see more of it today.