Reconsideration: Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)

More than half of the fanpeople to Kate Winslet know for certain she can do no wrong (I'm one of them!). After several Oscar nominations finally Winslet took home the big one: an Academy Award for Best Actress as Hanna Schmitz  in The Reader. Having not been a fan of this particular performance when this award show swung around on the calendar, I thought she was a great first choice to put for Reconsideration; giving a second watch of a film / performance with considerate hype to change my previous assumptions.

Michael Berg, a young teenager in Berlin is walking in the rain towards home when he has a chance encounter with an older woman, Hannah Schmitz. After being welcomed into her apartment flat to clean up from the rain (and his vomiting episodes), he feels an instant chemistry. Returning at a later date to show thanks for her kindness, the two begin a summertime romance.

What Hanna starts to teach Michael is lovemaking. Other than that, their romance seems to be fairly one-sided from Michaels' perspective. Exuding an ounce of control during one of their love-hate fights, Hannah rearranges their sessions: he'll read to her first, and then they'll make love. Months go by, Michaels' infatuation grows as Hanna manages to reciprocate his feelings. The dysfunctionality of their relationship becomes a major conflict. Michael is young and innocent while Hannah is secretive. Buried deep among their sexual lust other things resonant: guilt, companionship, manipulation.

Quite slow in terms of momentum gradually the film picks up as does the spotlight on Hanna Schmitz. This mysterious and stubborn character becomes more grounded. It starts when the pair take a biking trip outside of town. Making a stop for rest Hanna wanders into a church where children are performing a choral practice. Sitting in one of the pews, Schmitz is moved to tears listening to their heavenly voices.

One evening as Hanna works at her job as a train conductor, Michael unexpectedly shows up. Angered by his presence the two retreat to her home where they have a brief fight and then make-up period. Sooner rather than later, their last encounter seems to be their final. Hanna moves out of her flat abruptly and without warning.

Another chance encounter aligns for Michael to see Hanna. Apart of his schooling program to become a lawyer, Michael with his professor (a camp survivor) and classmates attend a trial hearing where former S.S. Guards are charged for having not come to the aid of concentration camp prisoners who were trapped inside a burning church during the death march in 1944. Hanna is one of the defendants. The weight of guilt Michael feels having known and interacted with Hanna is almost too much to bear.

Accused of being the leader of the guards and writing a report about the incident, Hanna's pride and her own shame comes into play. In a riveting scene during the trials, it is revealed to us and Michael that Hanna is illiterate. Asked to provide a sample of her handwriting, Hanna who had been defiant up until that point, agrees with her accusers. Michael faces an opportunity to tell her lawyers than she is illiterate. Reaching as far as almost meeting her behind bars, he decides against it and she is sentenced to prison for life.

Gradually until the third act, Winslet's Hanna Schmitz gains more layers than the beginning of the film. Though sentenced for life, we fast forward twenty years. As Hanna reaches a release date, Michael is finally able to reach some sort of contact to Hanna by sending her recordings of his book collection. Ignited to teach herself how to read using his voice, Hanna spends her days in jail listening to his voice as she used to in their summertime affair. A final visit, Michael asks what did she learn from her time before? Despite the light behind her eyes, honestly she declares,

"It doesn't matter what I feel. It doesn't matter what I think.
The dead are still dead."

Until the end of the film, Winslet's performance had a slow rise to being something powerful.

To watch this film again I felt David Kross was grossly underrated in comparison to Winslet. Carrying the youthful years of his character, while Ralph Fiennes' profiles the older, Kross' is brimming with guilt over having associated with this woman who was his first love. Hanna's brutish feelings sometimes would burst through when addressing Michael. Other scenes, it looked like this side of her was further than being on the back burner. For the first half of the film, I felt like something was missing from Winslet and not in a good way that it aided her character's mysteriousness; she's just not as fully attached to this character as others.

Looking back on 2008, I still don't consider this to be Winslet's best year to win, at least for The Reader. Getting attention here and there, I felt her performance as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road played better to her strengths. In a life completely opposite of how we picture 1950s as prim and perfect, Wheeler is a housewife desperate to escape her routine life in suburbia. With her marriage on the rocks with an equally disenchanted husband, they aid in a plan for a new life elsewhere, which is hopelessly and devastatingly abandoned. Sharing some monstrous scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio they are both subtle in their emotions yet unafraid in ruffling each others' feathers. Both of their performances were disappointingly shunned.

Even then, I'm not sure if The Reader solely relies on Kate Winslet's performance for the film to be powerful. As a World War II history buff, the film deals with a wide range of sensitive yet compelling subjects on how the holocaust shamed and guilted the following generations. Rising from the movies' theme, the fact that Hanna Schmitz was illiterate opens a can of worms: does it cancel out the choices she made? She showed compassion to some of the inmates, but there is hardly an excuse for her or any of the other guard's actions. The resonance of the story and time period leaves a deeper mark for me than her individual performance.

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