Review: Way more to "The Reader" than topless Kate Winslet

Grandma to the rescue - giving Jessica and me a Friday night sans kids. After pondering why the local theatre had movies starting 7ish, but the next wave not until after 10 (PM), we ended up at Target to buy a DVD for home. We picked up "The Reader," starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and newcomer David Koss. "Erotic tale .... " was enough to prompt my suggestion, "hey, this looks good." We men remain fairly predictable, don't we.

It turned out the erotic threads were ... weird. If you haven't seen the movie, I won't ruin it for you, but lets just say that Winslet's character is an admirer of youth.

But the movie left me wrestling with what I felt for the characters and trying to understand what I should to be feeling. Some of the deleted scenes were even more evocative of this confusing ambiguity and are very much worth watching.

Among the many questions, the obvious role of social conditioning in categorizing appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior. A topic that always fascinates me for its raw ability to convince most everyone that they know the answer. However, while sex is the commercial hook for many a sucker (count myself among them), it really is a very small piece of the story which eventually unfolds.

What was more fascinating to me was the exploration of Germany's Nazi experience. It is really incredible that in modern western civilization, a nation could be responsible for the atrocities that were carried out. Winslet's character shows us that collective, existential, cold logic without the difficult to quantify emotional ability which accompanys a healthy soul, precipitates en mass bizarre and terrifying moral relativism. The conversation in the truck ride to the death camp (incredibly a deleted scene) communicates this more effectively than any other scene in the film. It embodies the disconnect between understanding the chaos which would ensue after opening the doors of a burning church which contains prisoners in your charge, and the fundamental moral failure in not doing so.

But Winslet's character ultimately punishes herself more so that the tribunal would have had all the germane evidence been presented (foremost, her illiteracy). But like any good story we are served something smacking of redemption and are then forced to decide whether it can possibly be sufficient to recompense her moral shortcomings. It caused me pause and reflection unlike any film I have seen in quite some time. And I suspect that it may be that it is one of the rare films where the director intends (and succeeds) in making us extremely uncomfortable, angry, compassionate, but ultimately unsettled in what the collective experience represents.

Some have been critical of the film as attempting to gloss over the horrors of the Holocaust, even making claims of exploitative entertainment at the cost of a stern condemnation of Nazi crimes. I don't see it. It is a tasteful challenge to many preconceptions, artfully baiting us, but demanding its thoughtful viewers to look closer at a number of phenomena of varying degrees of weight. And of course, I can appreciate that.


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