- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When Miramax Films bought the rights to Bernhard Schlink’s novel “The Reader” in 1998, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck hadn’t finished film school. It’s too bad, because it would have been fascinating to see what the German director would have made of the German novel.

Mr. Donnersmarck’s 2006 film “The Lives of Others” was a masterful exploration of Germany’s troubled recent history and its effect on the victims and perpetrators. “The Reader,” an English-language film directed by English director Stephen Daldry and adapted by English playwright David Hare, tries to be the same thing for Germany’s more distant past. It’s an accomplished film, as you’d expect from the collaborators behind the great 2002 film “The Hours.” However, it simply doesn’t have the same emotional power that made “The Lives of Others” both deeply meditative and deeply moving.

“The Reader” is told from the perspective of Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a lawyer in Berlin who, in 1995, reflects on the brief, youthful affair nearly 40 years earlier that has shaped his entire life. In 1958, the young Michael (David Kross) falls ill in front of an old apartment building. A woman who lives there (Kate Winslet) cleans him up and takes him home. He’s bedridden for months with scarlet fever. When he recovers, he returns to thank the woman, Hanna Schmitz. The handsome pair quickly begin an intensely physical affair despite their age difference - she is 36, he is 15.

One can easily see why Michael shrugs off his school friends at the end of each day to rush over to Hanna’s house. He rips off his clothes as soon as gets there. Hanna’s reasons seem more complicated. There’s no question she’s attracted to the lithe young man, but she’s soon using him for other purposes, too: “We’re changing the order we do things, kid,” she tells him. “First you read to me, then we make love.”

She’s mesmerized by his voice and the words it speaks as he reads her novels, plays and stories. “This is disgusting. Where’d you get it?” she asks at her most maternal of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” “You should be ashamed. Well, go on.”

Such an affair isn’t sustainable, but Michael never quite recovers from its end. So it’s a shock when, eight years later, he’s a law student watching a trial of former concentration-camp guards and sees Hanna in the dock. Michael is a mix of conflicting emotions. How could he have loved a monster? Was she a monster or just an ordinary person caught up in one country’s extraordinarily infamous history?

These, of course, are the questions faced by the post-World War II generation in Germany and the subject of Mr. Schlink’s novel, a best-seller not only in Germany, but around the world. (It also was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.) A fellow law student puts a central theme more succinctly: “The question is, why did you let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”

“The Reader,” though, delves only superficially into these troubling questions - a problem with most movie adaptations. It gets some relief here because the one person who can help offer some answers is the one we understand the least. We never really get into Hanna’s head - not when she’s seducing a boy and not when she takes responsibility for her fellow guards’ actions. We are expected to believe that revealing a certain secret (I won’t divulge it) would be worse than taking responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Jews. Hanna might have her reasons, but we’re not privy to them, and it saps the emotional power from the film.

You can’t fault the performances. They’re all top-notch, particularly that of young Mr. Kross, who is a real find, and Miss Winslet, who does her best to augment the script with her expressive face.

We usually see English-language remakes of foreign films on these shores. “The Reader,” with its powerful potential, is ripe for remaking on foreign shores.

★★★

TITLE: “The Reader”

RATING: R (Some scenes of sexuality and nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare based on the novel “Der Vorleser” by Bernhard Schlink.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thereader-movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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