“The Reader” is about a lot of touchy subjects: Forgiveness of genocide in the name of humanity, the question of whether one can still love a person who has committed a horrendous crime, the impotence of shame and its translation into a lust for authority, and the never ending debate over whether or not law is based upon morality… just to name a few. And yet the one thing that springs immediately to mind whenever we think about this movie is the sexual affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty year old woman. We don’t think of their relationship later in the film, when Michael (David Cross in the flashbacks and Ralph Fiennes in the ‘90s) is forced to choose between exposing Hanna’s (Kate Winslet) shameful secret- she can’t read- or watching her be sentenced to a life in prison for the crime of allowing 300 Jewish women to burn to death in a church during her career as an SS guard.
Instead we think of the R-rated scenes involving beds, bathtubs, and books. Why? Is it a publicity stunt; to lure audiences in with the promise of sex and controversy before whacking them with a good dose of historical morality after they have already paid for their tickets? This would mean that the true depth of the more intense subject matter would emerge after having seen the film. At least, this was what I was hoping for. A hundred and twenty four minutes later, and my cynicism was in overdrive.
The problem with “The Reader” is that it presents exacting reality with tenderness and subtlety while treating the subtle and tender with exacting reality. It is not a holocaust film. It is about the lives of the next generation of Germans who had to live in the shadow of guilt and who were faced with the enormity of having to move on.
It is certainly a unique premise and one that carries a massive potential to resonate in our moral psyches. But it plays it safe. All the way from the rather too coincidental beginning to the neat-as-a-pin ending, it walks ever so lightly on its abundance of ethically controversial material, picking up on the nostalgia of post-WWII films that have gone before, but goes hog-wild when it comes to sexuality, leaping at the chance to at least be bold about something.
In doing this, it becomes what, in my opinion, is a bad movie. It is based on a story that implores us to consider something that we would prefer to put behind us. It (rightly) doesn’t want to give any answers for fear of having to take sides; but neither does it have the courage to ask any questions. “The Reader” is a movie about a nation that is weary of the shadows of the past, and its responsibility is to have the audacity to cast a light into that darkness. Instead, it is afraid of its own shadow. It is tactful and predictable.
When undertaking something that is potentially controversial, one must be firm in their convictions and know where they are going and what they want to do. “The Reader” has an identity crisis. Does it want to be a steamy romance? A period piece? A WWII aftermath film? It seems to know that any way it goes about it, there must be a flavor of controversy. And the only way it knows how to do that is not by forcing us to think, but by playing the sex card.
Maybe we too have an identity crisis. Maybe we are still afraid of our own shadow... our own thoughts.