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3 January 2009

Hanna's Choice (Part II)

When 15-year-old Michael is reading aloud from Tolstoy's War and Peace to his older lover, Hanna, in The Reader, he does not read out the sentence, "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner," which is, perhaps, intentional given that there isn't much compr√©hension or pardon in Stephen Daldry's latest film. 

I almost didn't go to see The Reader, firstly because of the absolute slating The Grauniad gave it yesterday, which was the only review I'd read. The reviewer gave it one star, even though he admitted he thought it was actually a good film but just too glib, shallow and sentimental--the lone star seemed rather petulant to me, but anyway. I was also getting fed up of the way Ralph Fiennes seems incapable of playing a character who ever feels any emotions other that distance, passiveness and coolness (The Duchess? The English Patient? The End of the Affair? The Constant Gardener? Maybe it's the presence of the definite article in the film title that causes this).

Anyway, I did see it and I'm glad I did--I certainly gave it a lot more than 1/5, thank you, Grauniad. It's 1995 and 50-ish Michael Berg (aka Ralph) is looking back on the summer of '58 when one rainy day, he became ill on a tram in Berlin and was helped by a woman who took him back to his house. The woman was Hanna (Kate Winslet), who was some 20 years older than Michael but the two begin an intense, if short-lived love affair in which the foreplay usually consists of them taking a bath or Michael reading aloud to Hanna from one of his books. However, all is not well as Hanna is clearly troubled by something and is by turns passionate and cold, tender and cruel and it turns out that she is keeping a secret from Michael--actually, more than one secret, but the *main* secret, which Michael finds out by chance, years later as a law student attending a Nazi war crimes trial, is that Hanna was an SS guard in World War II.

Michael gets in way over his head and is devastated when suddenly Hanna just disappears from her flat one day and never returns. 1976 Michael, 1980 Michael, 1988 Michael and 1995 Michael don't appear to have recovered from the damage this--and the later betrayal he feels when he finds out what Hanna was hiding from him--and he looks back with bitterness and regret and acts like a cold arsehole to the women he sleeps with and then discards. He's damaged, all right.

The centrepiece of the film is in 1966 where Hanna is being tried along with five other female guards--in some ways, this movie is the opposite of--or maybe the same as--Female Agents, showing that just as men have the capacity to do both great and terrible things, so too do women. The specific crime they are on trial for (Michael's law prof carefully makes the point that we cannot judge what is right or wrong; we can only judge what is legal or what was legal at the time) is locking 300 Jewish prisoners in a church in the countryside while on the Long March and refusing to unlock the doors when the church was bombed and caught on fire, leading to the deaths of all but one of the prisoners. Unlike the other defendants, Hanna admits to her role in this but she fails to understand--or appears to--exactly why what she did was wrong. She was just following orders; "they would have escaped if we'd unlocked the doors," she sez.

During the trial, Michael discovers Hanna's second secret--one that is powerful enough to potentially change the verdict on the trial and even though many would consider this secret to be trivial compared to the fact that she had been a guard for the SS, it is this secret that she is most ashamed of and because of her shame for this secret above the other that Michael cannot forgive her. She does not want to admit to it, however, and he remains silent, mainly, it seems, because he is suddenly struggling to understand exactly what "doing the right thing" means and how best justice should be served. Actually, it's not entirely clear he cares a great deal about "doing the right thing" unlike one of his holier-than-thou, sanctimonious fellow students (who seemed to have fallen right out of a John Grisham novel), who declares that if he had a gun, he would have shot Hanna right there and then.

In fact, it's not entirely clear whether Michael cares about anything very much--the later versions of the character seem to have neglected his parents and siblings and, later, his estranged wife and daughter, but maybe all of his thoughts are just constantly occupied in trying to understand just how someone he loved could also, in a past life, have done something so terrible. At first, it seems that the constant baths that take place in the first half of the film (it does for baths (and perhaps for reading aloud) what Nine 1/2 Weeks did for food) are purely erotic; later, the idea of self-cleansing and absolution enters the picture; finally, it's hard to tell whether the first theory wasn't right after all.

I didn't find the film glib or petty or missing the point. I liked that it wasn't what I was expecting. I liked that it reminds us that there isn't always a neat, clear explanation for everything, that not everyone is "a good person," especially when we don't really know what is meant by that phrase. Kate Winslet was excellent and I liked that her character was so ambiguous. But jeez, will someone give Ralph Fiennes a part that actually requires him to express some emotion and act like a human being? Please! (In his defence, I will recant a little and admit that I threw my copy of The End of the Affair at the wall at one point, as I often do when I get frustrated with a character, so I will concede that I just don't like Maurice Bendrix.)


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