BY MATT HUTCHINS
There are many experiences in a man’s youth that are truly unforgettable and which shape his consciousness as he grows into adulthood. His first sexual experience. His first brush with death. His first secret affair. His first taste of betrayal. These moments mold the mind by their sensual and psychological power, but few people will ever learn the details of the encounters that have created the subterranean architecture of the man they know.
The Reader, staring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet, lures its audience into the tale of a young man who falls in love with a woman, framed within a story of an older man who is divorced and has a daughter, and delivers an epic tour-de-force which reveals the inner psyche of an emotionally battered man. As the drama unfolds, the audience is drawn into the tensions which are created in the young Michael between himself, his friends, his family, and his lover by the ill-fated relationship. Michael’s life begins to be shaped by the choices he has made, and we see him mature and erect the social barriers that will rise to create emotional challenges for him later in life. Then, as an idealistic law student, he becomes embroiled in a situation which will revive his emotional loss, test his moral character, and bind his fate to legacy of a horrific atrocity. What follows is a deep and touching examination of free will, justice, law, and human communication, played out on an intensely personal level.
The Reader triumphs on every level of cinematic achievement. Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and his young counterpart, David Kross, each put on excellent performances, with Winslet’s portrayal of a complex and unusual character stealing the show. The screenplay achieves a winning combination of psychological complexity and emotional depth in a compelling personalization of the Holocaust’s legacy. Unlike most other films that treat the subject, The Reader achieves a sensitive examination of the effect the massacres of World War II had on non-Jewish Germans. Most important, its story is framed in terms of personal struggle rather than historical import.
The most compelling reason for The Reader to be a favorite for the Best Picture Oscar is the compelling use of cinematography to involve the audience in the psychological drama which unfolds. The camera becomes a facet of Michael’s soul through which the events of his life are refracted into our mind. Whether it is a forbidden glimpse into the apartment of Hanna Schmitz or his first visit to Auschwitz, we are drawn into his mind and shown the magnitude of each image as it is burned onto his life. The power of these images then informs our later impressions of events, when the ghosts of Michael’s past become just as haunting in our own present experience of the film.