The Reader: “But she’s kind of a cute Nazi.”

24 January, 2009

Ten years ago, an Italian film called Life is Beautiful blew audiences and Academy voters away with its touching and life-affirming portrait of a man who wanted to soften the blow of his family’s impending doom by treating the Holocaust like fun and games. The problem is nobody had the guts to stand up and point out that this film by the Italian answer to Robin Williams (And just as annoying, too, Down by Law aside.) was essentially a glorified remake of the legendary never-seen Jerry Lewis fiasco, The Day the Clown Cried. I find myself in a similar situation with The Reader, the new prestige picture from Stephen Daldry, albeit this is a horse of a different color, and a much less interesting one than Begnini’s at that.

For the first half of the film, a German young adult (David Kross) has an affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) which takes place over one summer. Years later, he is studying law and has the privilege to observe a war crimes trial with his class. On trial are six women who were employed as guards in the Auschwitz death camp. One of those women is — you guessed it — the same woman who made him a man those many years earlier. In other words: Mrs. Robinson has become a Nazi.

It’s difficult to think about The Reader without being reminded of Kate Winslet’s hilarious episode of Extras in which a twisted version of herself explains that the only reason she’s starring in a particular Holocaust film is to finally win an Oscar. Ricky Gervais even alluded to this episode at the Golden Globes a few weeks back. Now, I’m not suggesting Ms. Winslet is as cold in real life as she is on the show, but I can’t help but think this fact must’ve crossed her mind when she first read the script, and clearly the move has paid off. Is it any wonder that The Reader is up for the Best Picture Oscar? And here’s the bigger problem: The whole film is like that!

I realize The Reader isn’t a Holocaust film like Schindler’s List, and many have argued the film is really about sexual awakening. But the film barely dips its big toe into the water during that first interminable hour in which nothing happens apart from sex and reading. All the sex scenes are shot in the typically romanticized Hollywood fashion: Neck-up with off-screen but always gentle thrusting. And this is where the film actually made me angry. If you want to make a film about sexuality, do it. Don’t pussyfoot around the subject like an Oscar-begging wimp. All it took was one sex scene in Blue Velvet — David Lynch’s masterpiece about sexual awakening — to get the point across. The Reader takes about thirty, and never once did I feel the main character’s desires or fears. You’re screwing Kate Winslet, for God’s sake, the least you can do is keep me awake.

This is the definition of pretentious. It is a Nazi sexploitation film posing as Oscar-bait melodrama. Of all the Best Picture nominees, it is the only one whose potential win actually stirs up feelings of rage within my blood. For those of you still considering wasting time and money on this film, consider the following exhange from one of the more memorable episodes of Seinfeld:

Jerry: She’s a Nazi, George! A Nazi!
George: Yeah but she’s kind of a cute Nazi.

Really, Costanza? Really?


2 Responses to “The Reader: “But she’s kind of a cute Nazi.””

  1. Mr. Russell said

    Agreed; although “Benjamin Button” still gets my dander up more than “The Reader”. (I found the “literacy is transformative” tripe the most excrutiating part of the book — and I’m an English teacher!) The great failure, though, is that I don’t think either the book or the movie were meant to be about World War II (or “Read a Book”; or sexual awakening), not really. I think the core was meant to be, and should’ve been, the thoughts and feelings of the German adolescents growing up after the war, and their reaction to their parents’ perceived complacency. You get fleeting moments of that theme (and a somewhat histrionic confrontation with the professor), but nothing is really ever developed because it gets distracted with readerly sex — or sexly readering — and then sublimated cassette taping; unless it’s all subtly in there and I was just too thick to catch on. I would’ve found that more interesting, though, personally. It will probably be a bit like what our kids will think of us for Bush and Iraq: “What the hell, pops?! Did you just twiddle your thumbs for eight years?” Which is why I should never have kids. You know, so I don’t have to listen to them complain about my not having done more anti-war protesting. Or pro-Gore rallying. Or having denied them a puppy. Damn kids.

  2. Andrew said

    Please write more stuff like this, the line “You’re screwing Kate Winslet, for God’s sake, the least you can do is keep me awake.” made me laugh out loud. I haven’t seen The Reader and based on this I don’t plan to any time soon.
    On an unrelated note Liz throughly enjoyed Strawberry Man, when can we expect to see him again?

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