Is 'The Reader' Worthy of Its Best Picture Nomination?

"The Reader." Stephen Daldry, director. Weinsteins, producers. 123 minutes. Rated R for nudity.

I don’t get the fascination with the bland Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Constant Gardener, The Reader). One of my favorite "Seinfeld" episodes is the one where Elaine tries desperately to avoid seeing The English Patient, that ponderously long and tedious paean to love and war. I was equally disgruntled by the Academy’s choice of Titanic for Best Picture, with its made-up love story between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in lieu of a real story based on the real passengers. Maybe it was that steamy bathtub scene with Kristin Scott Thomas that floated the Academy’s boats in The English Patient. Come to think of it, there was that long arty scene of Leo sketching Kate’s breasts in Titanic…. Maybe that’s the connection! If the Academy loves watery nude scenes, The Reader fits right in.

The Reader could just as easily have been titled The Bather, since the first third of the film takes place in a bathtub. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) is a middle-aged tram conductor with a penchant for cleanliness and a secret to hide. When 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes ill on her tram and then vomits in the street near her flat, she attacks the mess with buckets of water and then kindly escorts the boy home. Later, when young Michael comes to her flat to thank her for her help, she asks him to bring up a bucket of coal and then orders him to strip down and bathe to get rid of the coal dust. Cowed by her orders, Michael nervously obeys, becoming even more nervous when a naked Hanna begins toweling him off.

But the nervousness doesn’t last long. Hanna does a lot of scrubbing and toweling as the two spend a "summer of ’42" in the bathtub, Hannah teaching "Kid" the kama sutra while the kid reads to her from dozens of books– The Odyssey, Huck Finn, Chekov’s The Lady with the Little Dog, even Tin Tin comics and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Then suddenly one day Hanna disappears. Simply packs up her apartment and leaves. No strings, no attachments, no pregnancy. Cozy, romantic, and sexy, right? Every young boy’s dream come true.

But wait a minute. He’s 15. And she’s 38.

And he never gets over it.

The adult Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is unable to sustain a relationship. Divorced, he is estranged from his daughter, scarcely visits his family, has sex with women but doesn’t sleep with them. In short, he has been traumatized by a sexual predator who is nevertheless portrayed as a victim. Am I the only reviewer who has noticed this fact?

We are supposed to feel sorry for Hanna because, poor thing, she is illiterate. And because she cannot read, her job choices are limited. Michael learns just how limited when, several years after his summer with Hanna, he attends the trial of Nazi war criminals as a law student. To his amazement, Hanna is one of the defendants, a former SS guard accused of sending dozens of women to their deaths in the concentration camps and, more brutally, of not allowing 300 women out of a burning building. "It was our job to guard them," she explains to the judge, adding, when he seems unmoved by that defense, "Well? What would you have done?"

This is perhaps the most important line of the film, the one worth pondering. What would you or I do, if faced with a similar dilemma? What moral crimes might we commit at work or at war, simply because it is our job? Would we have drunk the kool-aid? How many of Madoff’s employees suspected what was going on, but signed off on audits and reports because the benefits were good? Is it more heroic to obey "my country, right or wrong," or to act and think for ourselves? As jobs become more scarce in our shrinking economy, standing on moral ground may become more difficult–and more lonely.

But Hanna’s question is quickly lost as Berg discovers her seemingly more shameful secret: Hanna cannot read, and therefore could not have written the extermination report. If Berg reveals this fact to the judge, Hanna will not be given the more severe punishment as the ringleader of the guards. But Berg cannot bring himself to betray this shameful secret. Being an SS guard is one thing. But illiteracy? It’s not her fault she decided to become an SS guard; it was the only job she could get. He decides to keep her secret.

I don’t mean to downplay the hardship of illiteracy. As a teacher, I work with semi-literate students regularly. But to suggest that illiteracy is a more shameful secret than sending innocent women to their deaths? More shameful than sexually preying on a 15-year-old boy? I don’t buy it.

And I don’t buy this film as a Best Picture nominee. At times I felt as though I had walked into one of those peep shows on 8th Avenue rather than a highly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film. The Weinsteins must have known there was something wrong with all the nudity (so flagrant that the imdb website discusses his circumcision as a "goof"). After all, they waited until David Kross turned 18 to film those scenes, to avoid any statutory rape or child porn charges. Yes, Winslet’s performance is haunting as Hanna; she does amazing things with the snap of her dark, sorrowing eyes. Kross is brilliant as the young, besotted, confused Michael. But a film must be carried by the story, not by the actors alone.
Juxtaposed against their bathtub lovemaking are scenes of what Michael’s life could have been — carefree scenes of his friends swimming at the local lake as he runs off to spend the afternoon in Hanna’s bathtub. Hanna is a lifelong victimizer, not a victim. Illiteracy is no excuse for murder.