Thursday, December 25, 2008

Reading the German past

No one's likely to accuse director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") of taking the easy way out. Daldry seems to favor big-screen adaptations of film-resistant books. In 2002, he tackled "The Hours," Michael Cunningham's complex 1998 novel that centered on three lives connected by Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." This year, Daldry turns his attention to "The Reader," a novel by German author Bernhard Schlink that sets a large table as it attempts to deal with sex, collective memory and the Holocaust. Although the novel revolves around a torrid May/December romance between a 15 year old German boy and a woman who's more than twice his age, Daldry's adaptation seems shorter on eroticism than on middle-brow earnestness.

On screen, the story begins by indulging a common adolescent male fantasy. Young Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes sick on his way home from school. A voluptuous woman (Kate Winslet) rushes to his aid. It turns out that Michael has scarlet fever. When he recovers, he visits the woman's modest flat to thank her. It doesn't take long for the two to begin an affair. Winslet's Hanna, who earns her living collecting fares on trolley cars, tutors Michael in the sexual arts. She also insists that her young lover read aloud to her, an activity that gives the story its core meaning.

This story is framed by our introduction to an older version of Michael, played by Ralph Fiennes, who draws inward almost as deeply as he did in David Cronenberg's brilliant "Spider." Young Michael's openness seems entirely to have vanished by the time we see Fiennes. Years after his affair with Hanna, the divorced Michael practices law and has an uneasy relationship with a grown daughter who adds thematic weight in the final going.

Michael grows into a care-worn adult, but his youth wasn't trouble free, either. His affair with Winslet's character eventually hit some rough spots. One day, Hanna packed her meager belongings and disappeared. The story, which begins in 1958, then moves forward to 1966. Michael (still played by Kross) has become a law student in Heidelberg. He's studying with a professor (Bruno Ganz) who takes a small group of students to a trial at which several female Nazi prison guards are being prosecuted.

The stage is set for Daldry to deal with the difficulties a post-war German generation had in coming to grips with the Nazi past. "The Reader" extends beyond Michael's sexual adventures to confront impossibly difficult moral issues, an approach that, at first blush, seems like a virtue, but which, in the long run, raises as many questions as it settles.

If German authors wish to explore the guilt and denial connected with the Holocaust, German filmmakers probably ought to follow suit. This English-language production never really feels as if a scab is being ripped off a societal wound. The mixture of attraction and later revulsion that Michael feels for Winslet's Hanna makes her as much a symbol as a flesh-and-blood being, this despite ample baring of Winslet's naked body. Oh, hell, why be coy? Hanna was a concentration camp guard, an occupation that turns Michael's youthful lust into something sick and regrettable. The past ambushes him in ways he never could have imagined; he's unable to own it.

Toward the end of the film, the grown Michael travels to New York City for a conversation with a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin). Olin's character injects a tone of intellectual rigor into the proceedings, and Michael finally seems able to understand something about German guilt and the need to acknowledge past horrors.

Well and good, but after watching the movie, you may not know exactly how you're supposed to feel. I'm not suggesting that Daldry should have spoon fed us the movie's emotions, but that his movie can seem more interested in carrying literary weight than in digging through the tormented remains of history. David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for "The Hours," wrote this one as well, and it unfolds with a steadiness that may be inappropriate to the dizzying array of emotions that might have been elicited.

In a way, "The Reader" adds to a climate of mild revisionism about Nazi Germany that seems to be gripping the screen at the moment -- here and in movies such as "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Neither Shlink's novel nor the resultant movie allows Winslet's Hanna a full measure of redemption, but the movie creates a kind of odd sympathy for her. It's a sympathy that this character, no matter how well played by Winslet, can't possibly earn. Toward the end of the movie, Hanna tells Michael, who finally visits her in prison, that her feelings are unimportant because the dead are still dead. It's a great line, and, oddly, it comes close to obliterating the movie's entire reason for being.


And while we're on the subject of the German past, another movie marches into the Christmas fray. In "Valkyrie," Tom Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a key figure in a 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. Von Stauffenberg and his cohorts figured the war was lost and wanted to negotiate a quick peace agreement, details of which weren't entirely commendable and which are not discussed in a movie that's meant to show...well...I'm not sure what. That some Germans were heroes?

As directed by Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns" and the X-Men movies), "Valkyrie" moves quickly and includes a broad array of characters played by some terrific actors, notably Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terrence Stamp. But a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander keeps characterization to a minimum, preferring instead to treat the movie less as a historical exploration than a thriller with German uniforms.

Cruise, of course, portrays the hero of the story, a German officer and aristocrat who abhors Hitler, played here by David Bamber. Von Stauffenberg joins with a coterie of German officers in a plan that not only aims to topple Hitler, but also to set up a replacement government for Hitler's inner circle. Singer and company do an interesting job showing the aftermath of the attempted coup, the chaos that spread through Berlin when word of Hitler's death reached the city. It wasn't immediately clear that a bomb planted by von Stauffenberg at Wolf's Lair hadn't gotten the job done. Nighy particularly excels as Gen. Friedrich Olbricht, an officer whose indecision and overly cautious approach might have doomed the coup, which could have toppled Hitler's government even though Hitler survived.

Like the conspirators who plotted against Hitler, Singer and company don't quite get the job done, either, and, as is the case with "The Reader," a German production might have been more interesting. "Valkyrie" takes place during a dark historical moment. At one point, von Stauffenberg -- who only once is seen giving the Nazi salute and then sardonically -- suggests that the concentration camps be closed as soon as Hitler had been dispatched. I wondered, though, whether some of these admirably rebellious officers would have been so quick to scorn Hitler had it not already become apparent that Germany would lose the war.

A minor question: How did von Stauffenberg and his wife (Carice Van Houten) -- both played by actors with dark hair --manage to have nothing but blond children?

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