Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 19, 2008

Worst Movie of the Year: The Reader

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 4:13 pm

No contest. It’s not just another degrading conflation of Nazis and sex a trend in cultural stupidity I’ve noted elsewhere. It’s just plain incoherent, idiotic–and deeply offensive.

Kate Winslet–a wonderful actress (what could she be thinking?) plays a Nazi deathcamp guard–a job she got because, we’re led to believe by the deeply meretricious Bernard Schlink novel of the same name–she was illiterate. During the war she allowed 300 Jews locked in a church to burn to death. After the war–20 years after the war–when she’s finally put on trial, she takes the blame for writing a lying reort on the incident (and thus a longer–but still not very long–prison sentence–because she didn’t want to admit she was illiterate and thus couldn’t have written it. She’s (seriously) actually more ashamed of her inability tot read than her articiation in mass murder.

We’re apparently supposed to feel sorry for Kate for some reason because she really likes reading. In fact the whole first third of the movie is devoted to her imediate post war sexual affair with a teenage boy in which she shows how much she likes sex and reading–and how much the film makers like showing us her naked body as she gets herself read to and laid.

In the film the teenage boy (ralh Fiennnes–what was he thinking?–grows up to be a law student who’s shocked when he learns of her crime, but not shocked enough to prevent him from spending hours reading books into a tape recorder and sending her the tapes and the print versions which she uses–in conjunction–to learn to read.

We are somehow supposed to be insired by this tale of a her learning to read agaisnt all odds as a story of elf imrovement I guess. In the book she reads about the Holocaust she participated in and feels really, really bad about it. In the move the director, Stehen Daldry told us at a pre release screening he eliminated this because he thought it was “too redemptive”. In the movie she’s totally unrepentant except for sending a tea tin of her meagre savings via poor conflicted Raloh to the daughter of one of her victims. Thanks Kate!.

In the book literature is supposed to show her the path to a new humanity. In the movie she doesn’t even show repentance. So what’s the point of the movie. Reading Is Fun, even for mass murderers? It’s not even an advertisment for literarcy which in the film does nothing to change her morally.

This one of the most baffling misguided wrongheaded cases of filmmakers overcome by their misbegotten reverence for a widely over praised “contemporary classic” about collective guilt, not knowing what the fuck they’re doing. The film makes no sense whatesoever. The book was offensive but at least coherent.The film is an absolute disaster. Talk about Titanic being a disaster movie. This is a disaster of a movie. You almost expect that when a Jewish Holocaust survivor opens the pathetic tea-tin at the end they’ll find the blue sapphire “The Star of the Sea” from Kate’s Titanic role inside. It could not get any more farcical or moronic..

And yet the reverent reviews this film has got from people who should know better. Are they out of their mind? Or does the reverence for a “serious” film with “serious” actors and “serious” pretentions outweigh, overwhelm their “serious” powers of judgement? I’m totally baffled. I’d like to call this movie the Emporer’s New Clothes of “serious” Oscar contenders, but maybe with its sleazy exploitiv use of nudity to keep our attention from wandering in the first thifd, it should be called The Emporer’s New Nudity




  1. Fortunately only Rex Reed amd Jeffrey Lyons gave it raves, and both, allegedly, are susceptible to the blurb temptation (see Harvey Weinstein’s limited ad budget). Anthony Lane panned it, as did New York mag, the Voice, the Onion, Kyle Smith in “The NY Post”. Weinstein’s PR machine coughed up full Liz Smith and Cindy Adams raptures, as well as other tab blurbs, in which Elie Wiesel and Abraham Foxman of the ADL creamed over the film, while director Stephen Daldry ridiculously tried to cast himself as Martin Buber in a desperate round of canned interviews. Gawker gleefully speculated that Weinstein had called in the chits from his Hollywood Foreign Press Association pals, getting four nominations including the incongruous one of Winslet as Best SUPPORTING Actress so as not to compete with her Best Actress Golden Globe nod for “Revolutionary Road.” Kate Winslet has been available for a saucy round of press queries, focusing on the sex scenes in “The Reader”, even tastelessly joking about an interview she gave a few years back in which she remarked that “to win an Oscar I ought to make a Holocaust film.” The most sinister aspect of “The Reader” is that it is deliberately targeted to exploit quasimasochistic feelings of survivors’ guilt into a weltenschaung that we are somehow all victims and that any specific crime, even the indescribable monstrosity of the camps, is just part of the warp-and-woof of the Human Condition: moral relatvism reduced to a universal flat line.

    Comment by charlie finch — December 19, 2008 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  2. Ron,
    I have not seen the movie, and I have not heard good things about it, but you are being rather presumptuous in your judgment. I understand that you feel strongly about it, and am glad you do. But what bothers is this statement:

    And yet the reverent reviews this film has got from people who should know better. Are they out of their mind? Or does the reverence for a “serious” film with “serious” actors and “serious” pretentions outweigh, overwhelm their “serious” powers of judgement? I’m totally baffled.

    I thought you would no better than to speak for other people’s tastes. I find it rather presumptuous to assume that everyone has to see things the way you do. You are fully entitled to disagree with the critics who do like it. You are entitled to disagree strongly and intensely. But to say someone would have to be out of their mind to like this film is pretty egotistical, and it shows that you have a hard time seeing or respecting how other people think. There’s a line between feeling intensely negatively towards something and not respecting those who don’t see it that way.

    Comment by Ethan Stanislawski — December 20, 2008 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  3. I took the time out of my life to see The Reader and when I am on my deathbed I will look back and wish I never wasted two hours of my life watching this awful attempt to be artsy.

    Comment by Sarah — January 1, 2009 @ 6:56 pm | Reply

  4. Don’t miss the new wide release display add which reprints Roger Ebert’s rave in full and equates this turkey with slavery and concludes that we are all guilty and sheep, to boot!!

    Comment by charlie finch — January 3, 2009 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  5. The movie was staying true to the source award-winning novel. Blame the writer then whyduncha.

    Comment by zhanzhao — January 12, 2009 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  6. @ zhanzhao — I believe Mr. Rosenbaum points out differences between the film and the novel.

    @ Ron — Intrade says you’d better be ready for Kate Winslet getting that Oscar for her work in a film that sounds increasingly wrong the more you hear about it. I think the gods are punishing you personally for leaning on the Emperor’s New trope one time too many :p

    Comment by david simons — January 24, 2009 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for this. I had the same issues with The Reader and cannot fathom how it could not have been dismissed as a misconceived movie. If this woman actually took the bulk of the blame for the murder of those particular Jews BECAUSE she was more ashamed of being illiterate, then doesn’t the audience deserve to be given some insight as to why? Nothing was explained. A friend of mine who thought it was a brillant “character study,” didn’t even get my objection, so I fear there may be something else going on here…as in everyone no matter what she/he has done is worthy of of our sympathy, or at least attention. I am interested in what led individual Germans, who were not sympathetic to the Nazis, to work for them…that is very important to understand. But The Reader tells us nothing about why. As much as I admire Kate Winslet, I hope she does not win the Oscar. That will only ad to the box office of the film. And that would be unfortunate.

    Comment by Jane — January 26, 2009 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  8. Not only did Daldry, Hare, & co. omit the Holocaust books from the movie, but they replaced them with two books that I suspect were included to show that “like Kate Winslet, everyone has their faults and is a product of their times”: a Tintin book (Herge notoriously published his Tintins in the Nazi press) and “Huckleberry Finn” (of all the passages Daldry & co. could have chosen, they show the teenager, Kross, reading Winslet a passage with Jim talking in the offensive-to-modern-ears “negro voice” Twain gave him). If I’m reading their intentions here correctly, they have turned a device that in the book helped Winslet’s character empathize with the victims of her war crimes into a device designed to help us empathize with Winslet’s character.

    Comment by Ryan — February 16, 2009 @ 4:32 am | Reply

  9. A couple of other things that continue to bother me about this movie:

    In apparent furtherance of the movie’s thesis that “the Holocaust was something that made victims of us all,” the movie scrupulously avoids the words “Jew” or “Jewish” and does not confront antisemitism–Hanna’s or anyone else’s–in any way, shape or form.

    Hanna’s trial is presented as a miscarriage of justice, complete with a smug, unsympathetic judge (against whom Anna scores a brief victory by silencing him with the question, “What would YOU have done?”), and mean, unsympathetic crowds who shout “Nazi!” at Hanna at her sentencing. Even the student in Kross’s class who gets all shouty when discussing genocide, gets overexcited about the concept of “justice”, and suggests that all war criminals should kill themselves out of shame or be lined up and shot, ultimately concludes that Hanna’s trial is arbitrary, and that she (as opposed to all the others who supported or participated in the Holocaust) was only on trial because someone had happened to write a book about her. The movie makes it clear that–unlike the judge, the angry crowd, the shouty student–the proper attitude to adopt toward the crimes of Holocaust is one of ambivalence. Although Hanna ultimately serves less time than the average American pot offender, it is presented as a travesty that she should be put in jail for committing a crime.

    To further bias our sympathies toward Hanna, there is a huge contrast between the trajectory of Hanna’s life in her tiny prison cell and the life of the Holocaust survivor who put her there. When Fiennes goes to visit the survivor at the end of the movie, she is living in a cavernous, expensively (and tackily) appointed Manhattan apartment. When Fiennes presents the tin Hanna wishes to give the survivor by way of atonement–one of Hanna’s only earthly possessions–the survivor has a few other, better, tins already sitting on the coffee table. And the dirty bills in the tin pathetically contrast with the luxury on display. If the Holocaust made victims of everyone, some victims are certainly faring better than others. When we first saw the survivor, her nightmare had ended–but Hanna’s had just begun.

    Finally, could it really have been that much of a shock to find that a German of Hanna’s age had either worked for or supported Hitler? Such Germans couldn’t have been hard to come by at the time this movie takes place, but the movie treats her as the exception rather than the rule. Because the movie presents stumbling upon a Nazi in postwar Germany as such an anomaly, you could come away from this movie thinking that those who were not, like Hanna, among the (apparently rare) few who were directly employed by Hitler did not know or endorse what was happening in the camps.

    I don’t believe all the deck-stacking in Hanna’s favor is rooted in antisemitism; I just think it’s rooted in the default desire of a certain kind of intellectual to see two sides to every story, to see in complex shades of gray rather than black and white, to express moral ambivalence rather than moral outrage. With regard to Nazism, I do, in fact, find this is a worthy goal, and in fact believe that any Holocaust movie should implicate the audience, should cause the audience to empathize with Nazis and be disgusted by their empathy–should show us how we are all capable of committing the crimes the Nazis committed. However, downplaying the actual crimes and giving us a Nazi in the form of a naked Kate Winslet, to make empathy easier, is not the way to do it. The movie asks us to identify more with a beautiful, illiterate woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time than with anything resembling a Nazi.

    Comment by Ryan — February 16, 2009 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

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