In a typical act of award-season positioning, the Weinstein Company is pushing Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader as a Best Supporting Actress contender, presumably so she won't compete with herself for Best Actress for her work in Revolutionary Road (which opens in Atlanta on Jan. 9). Even if Winslet signed off on the plan, the tactic does a disservice to her career-best performance in The Reader, one of the year's most challenging and intellectually rich dramas.
Winslet has never so thoroughly disappeared into a role as she does with Hanna Schmitz, a terse tram attendant who starts up a secret love affair with high schooler Michael Berg (David Kross) in Germany in 1958. He reads literature to her as a form of foreplay and their carnal relationship develops into something deeper. The callow youth becomes more mature while the peremptory older woman reveals a tender side. Years later as a law student, Michael observes a trial for Nazi war criminals and is dumbstruck to discover that his teenage fling had been a concentration camp guard.
Stephen Daldry, director of The Hours, intercuts between young Michael's experiences in the 1950s and '60s with the character as an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes) trying to overcome his severe intimacy issues. In its portrayal of how a short-lived affair can shape someone across decades, The Reader would work as a powerful, two-pronged character study even without the context of German history. The relationship also provides sturdy metaphors for national guilt and responsibility. Germans of the post-World War II generations may not have been as intimately involved with Nazis as Michael inadvertently was, but they have to grapple with their legacy all the same. Michael and Hanna's affair provides the filmmakers with a fulcrum for balancing potentially abstract issues such as how people measure their own complicity, and whether forgiveness is ever appropriate when dealing with the Holocaust.
David Hare's adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel shows German streets and buildings in constant states of construction, as if the nation is forever trying to rebuild and rehabilitate itself after waging two world wars. The Reader refuses to explain Hanna away as either a demon or a dupe. Paradoxically, she seems untroubled by guilt for participating in a monstrous system, yet opens herself to arguably a harsher punishment than she deserves. As the title suggests, the film offers multiple interpretations for the act of reading, including Michael and the audience's attempts to "read" Hanna's true nature as a human being. Winslet's acting speaks volumes, and her Hanna Schmitz cannot be simply skimmed and dismissed.