We just got around to seeing “The Reader” this weekend (warning: plot spoilers below). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that I felt ruined my weekend. This was a first for me.
If only there were an Oscar for worst excuse for sex in a film, “The Reader” could have garnered the Oscar it deserved. As it was, Kate Winslet won the best actress award for her sympathetic potrayal of an Auschwitz camp guard in the film.
The first hour of the film is devoted to a graphic portrayal of the postwar affair between Winslet’s character, Hanna Schmitz, and the teenage high school boy whom she makes her lover. Why the need to see Kate Winslet naked and simulating sex? I think it has something to do with the filmmakers’ desire to create an irresistible box-office combination of pornography yoked with a high-minded view of the Holocaust.
Ron Rosenbaum dispenses justice of a sort in his condemnation of “The Reader.” Rosenbaum rightly objects to the portrayal of an Auschwitz camp guard as an innocent victim of the Holocaust. Any decent person who understands what is going on would be disgusted by the film several times over.
One cause for disgust not mentioned by Rosenbaum is the contrast drawn between Hanna Schmitz and a surviving victim of her mass murder (leaving 300 Jews locked in a burning church). At the end of the film, Schmitz has served 20 years in a West German prison for her crime. She is about to be released, but chooses this moment to hang herself in her cell.
The filmmakers exercise great tact regarding the scene of Schmitz’s death. They only show Winslet stacking up her books on the floor in order to hang herself. When it comes to depicting Winselt dying the filmmakers are far more reserved than when depicting Winslet naked. Such taste! This is art.
The scene cuts from Schmitz’s shabby cell to a luxury apartment in the United States. Schmitz’s now adult ex-lover delivers the money saved by Schmitz in prison to the survivor who testified against her at her trial. The stark contrast drawn by the film between the survivor living in luxury and the former Auschwitz guard living modestly in prison (teaching herself to read) represents a vicious fantasy that by itself captures the revolting animus of the film.