I often complain that American films set in other countries will have their stars speaking English — but with a foreign accent. The most egregious offender in this regard was K-19: The Widowmaker, which forced Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, playing Russian submarine captains named Alexei Vostrikov and Mikhail Polenin, to talk like assimilated Russian immigrants. The smartest approach to this was employed by The Hunt for Red October (and again in this year’s Valkyrie): have the actors start out actually speaking the language and then, in a few seconds or minutes, seamlessly transition to English. It’s a movie. We can use our imaginations. Come on.
The Reader seems to have been tailor-made to confound me in this respect. Some of its actors speak flawless English, most often of the British variety. Others (most notably Kate Winslet) take on German accents. Still others are actually Germans, presumably speaking English as best they can, with accents that are genuine. The fact that David Kross, the film’s lead, falls into the latter category, may explain why Winslet and a couple of others adopt accents — it may have seemed important that other characters speak in a way that matches the protagonist. But then, leaving the side the question of why a German actor was hired, why not everyone? Most inexplicably, why doesn’t Ralph Fiennes, playing Kross’s Michael Berg as an adult, follow suit?
This may seem weirdly anal-retentive, but every movie creates its own universe, and internal consistency is important. The accent boondoggle is a careless bit of business that detracts from what is otherwise a lovely, thoughtful film about guilt and the irrationality of the human mind. It’s a small film, given too much stature by its Holocaust subject and a shrewd awards campaign; it’s interesting precisely because it weaves Holocaust themes into a personal story.
The Reader was directed by Stephen Daldry, whose The Hours was an Aronofsky-like lyrical mood piece set to a lilting Phillip Glass score. This film is formally more straightforward, employing a standard flashback structure and filmed in a decidedly non-flashy, matter-of-fact fashion. (The musical score, this time courtesy of Nico Muhly, remains hyperactive.) There’s a lot of nudity and even more sex, and refreshingly Daldry just trains his camera on the action, making little effort to “artfully” conceal the naughty bits. David Kross, seventeen when The Reader was filmed, has more sex scenes here than most actors do in their entire careers.
As a young teenager in post-war Berlin, Michael has an affair with an older woman. She mysteriously disappears, and turns up years later on trial for WWII atrocities; Michael, a law student at the time, attends the trial for a class. The movie feints briefly toward a moral examination of Nazi complicity — “the question is never ‘was it wrong,” but ‘was it legal,” the professor opines — but isn’t really interested in that. I can’t really discuss the heart of the film without giving away a secret it wants to keep, but let’s just say that Kate Winslet’s Hannah has more skeletons in her closet than just her past in the SS — secrets that make Michael complicit in the outcome of the trial.
What ultimately happens doesn’t seem to make sense, and why it happens is the central question of the film. The Reader suggests that people cannot be trusted to make grave moral decisions, because most will permit apparently petty personal fears to get the better of them. Hannah and Michael both do it at different points, and both times the result is devastating.
The film doesn’t shove its message down your throat, and its prestige pic status belies its subtle intelligence. I have my reservations about The Reader — the last scene seems a bit simplistic, and those damn accents… — but like a surprising number of this year’s December offerings, it’s well worth your time.