So once again we have survived.

The Reader

THE READER
or
I WAS A TEENAGE NAZI-FUCKER (spoilers)

THE READER is the story of Michael Berg, a rich and successful German lawyer who is tormented that he cannot be emotionally open with the beautiful women he has sex with because when he was a kid he got sick and puked and a lady took him home and later he went to thank her but he accidentally saw her bush so he started to spy on her and then he helped her shovel coal and she gave him a bath but he got a boner so she got naked and they started to have sex every day and she liked him to read books to her but then she abandoned him and later when he was a law student he saw her in a war crimes trial and it turned out she had been a Nazi concentration camp guard who locked 300 people in a church and let them burn to death because she didn’t want them to escape and she took the blame for writing the report on it but he realized she didn’t know how to read but he was too afraid to speak up about it and she got a life sentence which made him feel guilty so decades later he started to send her tapes of himself reading books and she used those to learn how to read and then they were gonna let her out early anyway and he was gonna help her get a job but she hung herself so he took his daughter to her grave and started to tell her about it. the end. Best picture nominee, too.

The ReaderThis movie has many things to signal that it is important: the Holocaust, based on a book, multiple time periods, a trial, Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, the Weinstein Company logo, male nudity, female armpit hair, and about 45 minutes worth of tedious and gloomily shot scenes of an adult woman laying around naked with an actor portraying a 15 year old boy (David Kross – the German David Cross, I guess). But I have to admit, I could not figure out on my own what the movie was supposed to be saying or why somebody thought it was a story worth telling or watching.

The first section of the movie, the bathing and laying around reading section, looks at the affair with nostalgia, the way you only can get away with if the kid is a boy and the adult is a woman. This would not fly if it was a 35 year old man with a 15 year old girl (or boy for that matter). Admittedly, there is kind of a difference. Most 15 year old boys do dream of this sort of thing (except for the reading – how you gonna finish your homework if you also gotta read the classics of literature to your Nazi girlfriend?). But seeing poor Kate Winslet licking some gangly kid’s belly gets old after a while and you can’t help but wonder “jesus, is this supposed to be romantic, or erotic or something?” The marketers seem to think so, there’s an ad saying “THE READER IS A SEXUALLY CHARGED FORBIDDEN AFFAIR.”

The second section (the trial) replaces the laying around naked shots with many, many shots of the kid hunching over about to cry in torment as he hears the testimony, alternating with shots of his teacher looking at him wondering why he’s so upset. In fact he’s so upset he totally misses out on the ’60s, which is visualized in a scene where he sits brooding by himself on the roof of a building, looking down into another building where college students dance in front of a peace sign poster and a couple make free love in clear view of the window. The only thing missing is the Daniel Stern narration. They use songs from the RUSHMORE soundtrack to represent the era, which is at least better than using songs from the FORREST GUMP soundtrack.

Every once in a while our little fascist-banger goes to class and they discuss the implications of the trial. In one scene a classmate rants about the trial being a sham because they’re finding a few convenient scapegoats to blame for the Holocaust when in fact there were thousands of concentration camps and all of German society knew about it and failed to stop it from happening. I know it’s showing not telling, but this is one of the few parts in the movie where I felt like I knew the point they were trying to make. Then that character is never heard from in the movie again and the protagonist continues to brood and cry, which I can only take to mean he feels sympathy for a heartless, murdering Nazi because he lost his virginity to her. I kept hoping that in a dramatic MATLOCK moment he would leap to his feet and yell “I FUCKED HER!” And the judge starts pounding his gavel angrily, “ORDER! ORDER IN ZEE COURT!” That would’ve been cool. And I was hoping one of the other guards would say she couldn’t have locked the doors because her hand is paralyzed and she can’t lock doors but then the kid throws her an apple and she reflexively catches it, and everyone gasps.

The third section of the movie is mostly about adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) still obsessing over his booty call summer 30 years ago and apparently neglecting his daughter in order to spend all his time making tapes of reading books. At the end it explains that he was the inventor of the book on tape and made millions of dollars and this is based on a true story. Okay I made that last sentence up. But again I couldn’t tell what the filmatists were going for here. Does he think he’s in love with this elderly imprisoned Nazi lady he hasn’t seen since he was a kid? Does he just do it because he feels guilty because he didn’t reveal that she was illiterate, even though she didn’t either? Or does he just have a strong commitment to adult education? And are we supposed to admire what he’s doing, or feel sorry for him?

When he’s just a stupid kid obsessing over his first vaginal contact you can understand (if not enjoy or be interested in) where he’s coming from. But by the time he’s an adult who looks like Ralph Fiennes it starts to be pathetic. I guess the idea is if you cast Kate Winslet then the character doesn’t have to have any human qualities, we’ll just empathize with her anyway. She’s what they call a complex character: on one hand, she’s a cold and unfriendly pedophile who’s ashamed of not knowing how to read but not of letting 300 women and children burn to death. On the other hand, he fucked her. See? Multi-faceted. Look at all those layers!

Other than her Kate Winsletness there’s no reason to like her, even before you know she’s a Nazi. She’s never friendly to him and is often cruel, even aside from the fact that she’s a child molester. About the only thing nice she ever does is clean up his puke at the beginning, and even then she just dumps a bucket of water on it. If it was true love she’d use disinfectant. I guess in one scene they ride bikes together and she smiles, that must be the part where you understand why he would waste his whole life pining over this crazy bitch.

Note to Ralph Fiennes: there are other women who enjoy biking, some of them perhaps enjoy it even more than the first Nazi you bagged. Drop the nostalgia and get on with your life you fuckin loser. I’m sorry to put such a fine point on it, but it needs to be said. You need some tough love, and by that I do NOT mean you need to be molested by a Nazi. And by the way, I never saw an Ilsa movie before, but this has got to be the most boring of the entire series. I mean it would have to be.

If the idea was to show how a normal person can gradually slide into evil, I feel like they skipped that part. There’s a pretty big leap from “I had to work at a concentration camp because if I worked in the office they’d find out I can’t read” to “I couldn’t open the doors on a crowded burning church because the people burning alive were my prisoners.” If it means to explain that lack of a basic conscience, it fails. If the idea is to show that we are all human, that the good guys have flaws and the bad guys might have some good in them too, well, I think Paul Verhoeven did that much more effectively in his WWII movie BLACK BOOK – a movie that’s both more fun and more devastating than this dull trip down the middle of the road.

If THE READER is actually a good movie then I sure as hell don’t get why. But it’s based on a book, so I went to wikipedia to find out what the deal is. From the detailed plot description it sounds like the movie is remarkably faithful, with one major exception being that the book is loaded with long interior monologues musing about all the implications of everything that’s going on. In the movie, you just look at the dude pouting and crying. I could’ve watched the movie ten times in a row and while I would certainly have confessed to many crimes that I did not commit I would not have ever guessed that the book is about “the difficulties of subsequent generations to comprehend the Holocaust; specifically, whether a sense of its origins and magnitude can be adequately conveyed solely through written and oral media.” I thought it was just about a dude who never got over that summer when he fucked that Nazi.

I’m sure there are some people out there who like this movie, and if they get something out of it then good for them I guess, I’m not asking it to spell out its themes for me to understand. But I just didn’t find the story compelling. I guess I like my lurid trash to be more fun. Give me WILD THINGS over this shit any day. If this genuinely has something to say about the Holocaust or pedophilia or literacy or whatever then you guys better tell me about it later because I sure didn’t get it out of the movie. Wikipedia says that those of us who weren’t alive for the Holocaust can’t comprehend exactly what it was like – no shit, Poirot. I’m sure the book has something more to say about it, but I don’t think the movie does.

Now, some people might say it’s not fair to bring up the fact that this was unjustly nominated for the best picture Oscar. But that nomination is the only reason I paid to see it, and in fact all the marketing since before it was even finished was based around the idea that it was an Oscar contender. I guarantee you that other than members of the Oprah Book Club, 99% percent of all viewings of this movie will be Oscar related. Therefore I think it’s legit to bring this up.

True, this is the same award that went to CRASH, and you can’t take them too seriously. I know that. But I think 2008 was a banner year for movies and it’s sad to see such an uninspired bunch taking the honors. I mean look, I’m not surprised the Academy doesn’t have the same tastes as me, I’m not gonna complain that they incorrectly failed to nominate REDBELT. That’s normal. But there are a whole slew of 2008 movies almost universally considered to be better than this crap, two of them particularly obvious.

It’s not like the greatness of DARK KNIGHT and WALL-E are a secret. WALL-E is a hit with audiences but it’s also the best reviewed movie of the year. I have no doubt in my mind that it will be remembered as a classic for decades. I also have no doubt in my mind that nobody will have any idea what THE READER is in five years. But because WALL-E is a cartoon it’s only worthy to compete with fucking BOLT and not with the grownups. Ghettoized like in Roger Rabbit.

Some skeptics say yeah, DARK KNIGHT and WALL-E are pretty good, but they’re not Best Picture. Best Picture means IMPORTANT. Well, what is an important movie? I believe WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT are important just as filmmaking, because they transcend their respective genres and change people’s ideas of what those types of movies are capable of. I also believe that the political subtext of both movies is more thought out and has inspired more discussion than whatever the fuck the more openly-trying-to-be-political THE READER is supposed to be about. And yet unlike THE READER they also manage to be incredibly entertaining. A mistake, maybe, I don’t know. (Though BENJAMIN BUTTON and probable winner SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE are both mainstream entertainment type of movies, so I don’t know.)

Maybe voters turned their noses up to DARK KNIGHT and WALL-E because they are commercial, blockbuster type of movies. Okay yeah, they made a ton of money, but if you look strictly at the artistry I think THE READER is the one that’s the cynical Hollywood moneymaking exercise. We’ve all seen a million comic book movies and computer animation cartoons, we know the level of mediocrity you can get away with and still make a billion dollars. The respective filmatists behind DK and W-E rewrote the rules though. They challenged the notions of what you’re supposed to do (or not do) in those movies and delivered far more than anyone ever expects or thought possible. THE READER does the opposite, it just sloppily hits on those notes you need for a movie you’re gonna market purely as an Oscar contender and doesn’t even excel in any of those areas. The fucking thing isn’t even shot all that well and it has Roger Deakins’ name on it. (I think he was replaced by a different guy, presumably out of boredom.)

To be fair, there is one scene that is very effectively uncomfortable. During the trial there is some emotional testimony from a Holocaust survivor. Suddenly in the theater, a phone begins to ring. A drunk lady paws through her bag trying to find the phone, which keeps playing a snippet of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” How do you not laugh at that? But you can’t laugh. Very intense. This probaly won’t happen in other showings, but I will still give the movie credit for having made such a moment possible.

Anyway oh well, a snub is nothing new, puts ’em in good company. But you know what, things are getting better in this world, we don’t need to just accept the same old bullshit just because it’s always been that way. Didn’t you Hollywood fuckers know we elected Obama? If we can elect Obama we can start ignoring this type of horse shit and giving awards to better movies, can’t we? Maybe you haven’t heard about hope and change? What about striving for excellence?

Oh well, I don’t give a shit. Go fuck a Nazi.

IN 2002, MICHAEL BERG QUIT LAW AND INVESTED 3.5 MILLION EUROS WORTH OF BOOK-ON-TAPE EARNINGS TO BUILD A WATERSLIDE PARK IN HANNAH’S HONOR. HE HUNG HIMSELF BEFORE ITS COMPLETION AND NOBODY ELSE CARED SO THEY CONVERTED IT TO CONDOS.

1 IN 10 WORLD WAR II CONCENTRATION CAMP GUARDS COULD NOT READ OR WRITE. NATIONAL LITERACY HOTLINE: 1-800-228-8813

IF YOU ARE SITTING NEXT TO A CONCENTRATION CAMP GUARD PLEASE READ THIS PART OUT LOUD BECAUSE SHE’S FAKING READING IT TO HIDE THE SHAME.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 3:46 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “The Reader”

  1. Your predictions about the cultural longevity of THE DARK KNIGHT, WALL-E, and THE READER are coming true so far.

    I do strive for excellence. However, I confess I’m finding it logistically difficult to take up your suggestion that I fuck a Nazi. And if I did locate one, would it be ethical to make the Nazi orgasm?

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