‘The Reader’: Small Fry, By Kurt Loder

A triumphant performance by Kate Winslet anchors the year's most disturbing Holocaust movie.

The Nuremberg war-crimes trials of top Nazi leaders, which got underway in the fall of 1945, brought forth a procession of incomprehensible monsters. But another series of trials, conducted two decades later in Frankfurt, West Germany, focused on a more lumpen group of Holocaust enablers — the orderlies, adjutants and lower-level SS thugs who helped run the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where more than a million people were exterminated. There were no women among this group of defendants, but Hanna Schmitz, the fictional character played with spellbinding precision by [movieperson id="166088"]Kate Winslet[/movieperson] in [movie id="362766"]“The Reader,”[/movie] is recognizably of their ilk.

Unlike other Holocaust-related films being put before us this year — [movie id="354946"]“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”[/movie] and the forthcoming “Good,” for example — “The Reader” makes no case for the common humanity we allegedly share with Nazi functionaries. (In “Good,” especially, the decision to become a Nazi is presented as an ill-thought-out career move.) Instead, the picture gives us a protagonist who elicits little sympathy. Hanna is dumb, sullen and obscurely troubled — although not, as it turns out, by anything she did in the war. She’s a pathetic human being, and Winslet plays her that way unflinchingly.

Roughly like the German novel on which it’s based, “The Reader” tells the story of a 15-year-old boy named Michael Berg ([movieperson id="434352"]David Kross[/movieperson]), who falls into a casual affair with a 36-year-old streetcar ticket-taker in 1958. This is Hanna. She finds Michael collapsed outside her apartment one day with the beginnings of scarlet fever and guides him back to his home. After recovering, he returns to her cheerless apartment to thank her. She’s distracted and strangely ungracious. It’s cold, and she tells him to bring a scuttle of coal up from the basement. He comes back covered with coal dust. “Take off your clothes,” she says. “I’ll run you a bath.” He strips and steps into the water. When Hanna returns with a towel, she’s naked, too.

In return for sex, Hanna asks only that Michael, who’s studying Latin and Greek in school, read to her. So he brings over books and begins reading aloud from the work of Horace and Sappho, as well as Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence. Hanna is transfixed; Michael is in love. One day, though, Michael comes to Hanna’s apartment and finds her gone, with no word left behind.

He doesn’t see her again until the early 1960s, by which time he’s a law student at a Berlin university. Michael is a part of Germany’s first postwar generation, a vast contingent of young people who are trying to come to grips with the inconceivable crimes against humanity that their elders either committed or countenanced during the Hitler years. Opinions differ strongly. A law professor (Bruno Ganz) contends that no matter how abominable the Nazis’ undertakings were, a decent society must still be ruled by law: “The question is never, ‘Was it wrong?’ It’s, ‘Was it legal?’ ” Some of Michael’s fellow students are infuriated by such nitpicking, and disinclined to let their parents’ generation off the hook for any reason. “What is there to understand?” one of them angrily asks. “Everybody knew.” The professor takes them to observe a trial of minor SS members — a group of women who had worked as guards at Auschwitz. Here, Michael finally lays eyes on Hanna again. She’s in the dock.

Listening from the courtroom’s back benches, Michael learns that Hanna was one of those responsible for singling out prisoners for extermination at Auschwitz, and that she took part in a death march in which dozens of inmates were burned alive in a locked church. In these riveting scenes, Winslet plays Hanna as a trapped and baffled animal. She testifies that she was unemployed in 1943, when she heard the SS was seeking people to work as guards at Auschwitz. It was just a job. Sending selected prisoners to the ovens? “The old ones had to make way for the new ones.” Refusing to unlock the doors of a burning church so the terrified inmates could escape? “Our job was to protect the prisoners. There would have been chaos.” Looking at the judge, she asks, “What would you have done?”

Hanna is set up as the main perpetrator of these hideous crimes by her fellow defendants, who, 20 years after the events in question, now look like happy, harmless hausfraus. Hanna has a secret that might at least contextualize her actions, but she’s too ashamed to admit it, and the court sentences her to life in prison. Michael knows her secret, too, but realizing that the woman he once loved is someone he never actually knew, he says nothing.

The movie suffers from its disjointed structure, which flashes back and forth between the young Michael’s experiences with Hanna and his ongoing connection with her as an adult (played with recessive concern by [movieperson id="20625"]Ralph Fiennes[/movieperson]). And some viewers will understandably reject any attempt to understand, if in no way exonerate, a Nazi executioner. But Winslet, I think, surmounts such objections with the exacting brilliance of her performance. Her Hanna, dim and uneducated, is a moral illiterate — a witting but somehow uncomprehending participant in the abominations of the Final Solution. That she could have been anybody is one of the Holocaust’s many indelible horrors.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Gran Torino” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Reader.”

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