You know you’re witnessing a nonpareil performance when an actress manages to turn a fictional character who is not only a Nazi but also a pedophile into an empathetic figure. This is precisely the arguably morally-objectionable feat achieved by Kate Winslet in her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Hannah Schmitz, a member of the SS who served at Auschwitz during World War II.
Adapted from the Swiss novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader has landed a total of five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Unfortunately, it relies on a premise that’s a little hard to swallow, namely, that a concentration camp prison guard might be more ashamed of being illiterate than of having helped to exterminate Jews.
For this is the plight of poor, poor Hannah, who the audience is persuaded to view as your average uneducated German just following orders. Thus, she’s isn’t really evil, but simply too dumb to appreciate the unspeakable crime against humanity in which she’s unwittingly participating. Yeah, right.
Though set in Deutschland 1995, this flashback flick unfolds from the perspective of Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), who is 15 when first seduced by tram ticket-taker Hannah in the wake of VE day. Then, after he has already become passionately obsessed with the shapely, forty-something year-old spinster, she inexplicably disappears without a trace.
Years later, quite by accident, he finds his long-lost love while observing the Nazi War Trials as a law student. Apparently, the Allies dropped a bomb on a locked church containing 300 Jews internees and Hannah was a member of an all-female detail who let the building burn to the ground rather than risk being overwhelmed by their prisoners.
The plot thickens when Iron Mike must watch silently while it becomes obvious that his ex’s guilt or innocence will turn on whether her handwriting matches that of the official report of the incident. But since she’s ashamed that she can’t write, she opts to take the fall for her more culpable fellow defendant, and therefore ends up with the stiffest sentence, life in prison.
With hope gone of resuming the relationship, Michael moves on, though left so traumatized that he is never able to amount to much of a husband or father. All of the above arrives in a chronologically confusing order, which only makes the movie more unappetizing. Admittedly, Winslet is absolutely inspired as the naïve, if naughty, Nazi. Too bad her winning performance is in service of revisionist history so implausible on its face that it’s laughable.
Springtime for Hitler, the sequel!