Yes, but a nude Kate Winslet always deserves an Oscar.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 @ 12:40 pm | Culture

Damn…I have a screener of The Reader ready to fire up, but Ron Rosenbaum deconstructs the movie’s apparent stupidity so devastatingly I might just have to watch it on mute, fast forwarding to Kate Winslet’s next display of glorious nekkidness.

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder! Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you’re guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it’s not shown in the film. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

Or, rather, the only justification is removed:

Daldry said he’d had a big fight with the author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink. In the novel, when Kate’s mass murderer learns to read, one of the things she reads about is—guess what?—the Holocaust. We’re led to believe that she’s learning about it, or at least the extent of it, for the first time, from reading Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Hannah Arendt, and is suitably horrified. You get the idea: Reading can develop a moral sense, a path toward redemption….

But Daldry said he and Hare eliminated the Holocaust education aspect of the novel (over the strong objections of Schlink) because he didn’t want the film to seem to be about redemption; too many Holocaust films offer a kind of false redemptiveness, he said.

While many a director has wisely altered book content for the screen (did you REALLY want spend a third of The Godfather following the plight of a girl with an oversized vagina?), as a rule the author of a book should be trusted, especially on thematic concerns.

I imagine I’ll have to watch the film to see if Kate Winslet’s character escapes trite redemption, and while I’d like to keep joking about her nudity redeeming the film, Rosenbaum says it’s no joke:

The nudity, which I’ve had cause to reference before in a column on the irresistible (to culture-makers) attraction between Nazis and sex, gives new meaning to the word gratuitous. To my friend, it was a manipulative tool used to create intimacy with and thus empathy for an unrepentant mass murderer. And what’s more—to shocked gasps, he said exactly that to the director in the Q&A session. And didn’t stop there, calling The Reader a “dishonest and mediocre” film that used nudity to disguise its thematic nakedness.

So the director eliminated the Elie Wiesel and inserted Kate’s cinematic treasures in lieu? Good grief.

Worst of all, Rosenbaum says, The Reader is part of a new “Them Germans weren’t such bad people after all!” genre in film, along with the popcorn-fest Valkryie and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

I will watch The Reader because I don’t really believe in condemning movies I haven’t seen, but if Rosenbaum is right, then it is a horrendously misguided film. Then again, he hated Life is Beautiful, which I can’t imagine doing without being tediously self-righteous.

-jb

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