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.