"Take off your cloze," says a beautiful older woman with a German accent (Kate Winslet) to a seemingly lucky teenager (David Kross) in "The Reader," an odd entry in the Holocaust movie sweepstakes that suggests -- what? That Nazis might have been nicer if they'd spent more time reading instead of burning books?
Adapted from a well-regarded 1995 international best-seller and Oprah's Book Club selection by German author Bernard Schlink, "The Reader" apparently means to grapple with the impact of the Nazi legacy on those who grew up after the war. As such, the first character we are introduced to is Michael Berg, a modern lawyer played by a typically morose Ralph Fiennes, the movie's prince of thin-lipped intellectual suffering.
Flashbacks (which occupy most of the film) reveal the source of Michael's torture: When he was a youth (Kross) in West Germany in 1958, Michael engaged in a deep and secret love affair with a beautiful but lonely and mysterious tram conductor named Hannah (Winslet), who years later was revealed to have been a Nazi death-camp guard.
Hannah introduced Michael to sex. Michael, meanwhile, introduced Hannah to the pleasures of literature, reading aloud to her from works by Homer, Chekhov and Twain after each afternoon's "roll in ze hay" (to quote another actress who once employed a German accent, Teri Garr in "Young Frankenstein").
The couple share a laugh over the "black" voice Michael adopts while reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This brief, embarrassing moment represents an odd choice on the part of director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours"), since we are watching characters who are supposed to be speaking German, even though the film is in English. It's meaningless in the context of the story, but typical of an impeccably produced, beautifully photographed movie -- as neat as a pressed white tablecloth, despite the messiness of its ironies -- that generates puzzlement instead of sympathy or sorrow in the viewer.
Later in the film, the daughter (Lena Olin) of a Holocaust survivor tells the adult Michael, who apparently is seeking some sort of forgiveness for his love for Hannah, that "the camps weren't therapy... Go to the theater if you want catharsis. Go to literature." The scene seems a repudiation of the movie itself, although the film does offer something the novel can't: Kate Winslet really does take off her cloze, a lot.
"The Reader" is at the Malco Paradiso.
-- John Beifuss, 529-2394