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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

German Wheat, Winter Crop

The Reader, Seen Wednesday evening December 3, 2008, at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #1, as part of the Variety Screening Series.  3 Slithy Toads.  

Good, Seen Wednesday evening December 10, 2008, at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #1, as part of the Variety Screening Series.  1.5 Slithy Toads.

So I've gotten to spend the past two Wednesdays in WWII.  

The Reader, which stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and a very talented young German actor named David Kross, is a rather meditative movie about the aftermath of the war and of Nazi Germany.  It draws on questions of guilt, innocence and redemption, it goes places where not too many other movies on the subject go, and while not successful in all ways and every way is nonetheless a film that grew on me as it went along.

Good is a more prosaic piece of work set during the thick of the Nazi reign from the early and mid 1930s thru to 1942.  It stars Viggo Mortensen as an academic who is roped into the SS at the possible expense of his friendship with a German Jew.  Based on the Q&A afterward, it's too much one of those movies Samuel Goldwyn was talking about in his famous quote "If you want to send a message, call Western Union."  It's a movie with a message, but not really with a purpose.

There's no denying Viggo Mortensen's talent as an actor.  As was the case here, I was able courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image to see screenings of two earlier films of his, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence.  We've all seen him in The Lord of the Rings.  I also saw him in Appaloosa, another 1.5 toader.  His range and variety in all is quite stunning, to the extent that you'd hardly know it's him in Appaloosa if you didn't stay around for the credits.  This isn't his best performance, or maybe he's just putting on a show that doesn't interest me.  He seems to be channeling his inner William Hurt, doing a kind of mousy performance with bad glasses that reminded me of Hurt in The Doctor or other movies of his from twenty-some years back.  He's scared when he's called in to an interview in the German chancellory, and then relieved to discover that their interest in him is purely professional.  He's written a novel that dealt with right to die issues, which dovetails nicely with Hitler's idea on euthanasia, and thus is enlisted to write a paper on ethics that can be used to guide party actions on this issue.  But you know, if they're going to have him do this maybe it would be good of him to join the party, which he kind of forgot to do because he wasn't happy about book burning and his mother was ill and his marriage was breaking up on account of his relationship with a young student and etc. etc. etc.  So he joins the party, becomes a good soldier, slowly becomes more of a Nazi without ever fully becoming one or ever fully realizing what he's doing.  He has a Jewish friend played by Jason Isaacs (wow, I wish I'd known before I'd gone to the movie where he and Viggo were the 2 Q&Aers that he's been playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) who is worried about what's happening and wants to get out and hopes his friend Viggo can help.  But Viggo doesn't realize how important it is until the eve of Kristallnacht when it's kind of too late and he has to rely on his student lover wife who everyone except him knows won't want to help the Jew, and it isn't until he gets to a concentration camp in 1942 that he finally realizes what he's gotten involved with, at which point the movie ends.

This is all Very Worthy.  But unfortunately the idea of somebody joining the Nazis unwllingly and then getting into it has been done before.  I think first in that subject of the underrated movie Swing Kids.  The movie is fraught with complication to make up for its absence of same so we get scenes of the tubercular and dementia-suffering mother being cared for and of the book burning and of other things that aren't entirely on point.  During the Q&A Jason Isaacs talked about how we had this thing going in the US with torturing people and tapping their phones, and what was he doing about it but being very upset at dinner parties, and a little of that as well from Viggo Mortensen, but all of their worthy intentions don't make this a worthwhile movie to see.  I'm not fond of the Bush administration's balance of civil liberties and securities needs, and I've limited my actions on that front similarly (well, I've also ranted against hotels asking for photo ID and made scenes at front desks about it, for all that's done), and I've called Rudy Giuliani a fascist but not to his face.  But it seems to me the slippery slope has to get a lot steeper still before I'd call the US a Nazi regime, and making this movie as a Lesson To Us All doesn't make it for me.

All that being said, Jason Isaacs may give the best performance in the movie.  Mortensen doesn't do it for me here, his mother is a caricature of a person with dementia, the two main women seem to be channeling Katharine Hepburn, and maybe if 20 years ago she had played the mother with dementia and William Hurt had played the academic this would have been a movie worth seeing.

The Reader was rather better, I think.

David Kross starts the movie as a 15-year-old stricken with scarlet fever while returning from school one day, and the moment we see our first glimpse of him on screen, it's clear that he has It, that indefinable It that you find very early on in Tom Cruise's career or that Shia LaBeouf radiates.  Granted as the camera pans along the bus where he's getting ill we are supposed to find him because he's one of the stars of the movie, but it's not just some cinematographer's extra bit of spotlight that makes him leap out at you.  The fact that he has It is a very good thing, because he is given succor and helped on his way home by Kate Winslet, several years older than he and a tram conductor, and following his months of recovery from his illness he returns to thank Winslet, and the two are instantly having quite a lavish sex thing going with one another.  Kate Winslet (Titanic, you know) isn't the kind of person we'd want to see having torrid underage sex with somebody who doesn't have It.  In any case, he and Daniel Brühl are my German actors to watch.

Perhaps the author of The Reader was inspired by Bull Durham, in which Susan Sarandon likes to read Walt Whitman as foreplay.  Here it's the reverse.  Kate Winslet likes to have David Kross read to her, and then they have sex and read more, and there are far worse things to do than watch 15 minutes of the two of them with little clothes on having sex and doing the live in person book-on-tape thing.This is not as good for the very middle class parents and siblings of David Kross who are mostly ignored for the period of time that this relationship endures, and he is not very happy when she suddenly disappears and he is forced to return home and be bourgeois instead of a matinee idol.

Spoilers follow:  Several years later Kross is in law school, and his class attends a trial of several women accused of being SS guards in Auschwitz.  In the final days of the war, trying to march some of the prisoners ahead of the allied troops, they house 300 of them in a church one night, the church catches fire, the guards refuse to let the prisoners out, almost all of them die in the fire.  And guess who was one of the guards, none but the character of Hanna Schmitz played by Winslet.  She is terribly unrepentant of her acts, not of leaving her department store job to join the SS, not of her selection of prisoners to go to the gas chambers, not of her decision not to unlock the church doors.  And the kind of scary thing is that her arguments on all three accounts almost sound reasonable.  But they're reasonable in the way of a fifth grader, the kinds of arguments that make perfect sense and are utterly logical so long as they're utterly divorced from any moral component or any depth of thought beyond the utmost blind adherence to rules.  

Kross is rather shaken to see his high school sex partner in this new light, and reluctant on those grounds alone to mention any connection between he and the accused to his classmates or his professor.  But there's more to it than that.  There's a kind of Sixth Sense moment in the movie where we and Kross realize something about Winslet's character, which I deduced fractionally ahead of the reveal.  Why in the movie does Winslet have Kross read to her?  And why in my review have I referred to her rationalizations as being those of a child?  Can you figure out something about what Hanna Schmitz can and cannot do in her life?  When Schmitz/Winslet confesses to something to her detriment and to the benefit of her co-defendants that she clearly could not have done, Kross is totally shaken about what to do.  Does he speak up to her benefit and his detriment?  Does he remain silent himself, as silent as all those who Knew what was happening during the War but chose not to speak up?  

Some years pass, and the adult version of Kross' character is now a lawyer with a daughter from a failed marriage who is played by Ralph Fiennes (and we've seen Fiennes and know this, the movie is a kind of memory play relayed in flashback from the adult version).  Fiennes takes up a correspondence with Winslet in prison, and becomes virtually her only link to the outside world.  The nature of their correspondence ties in to the reveal about the character during the trial.  

I wasn't inclined to like this movie from the start.  While I did like Kross very much, there was a whiff of starchy literary adaptation to the film (the critic in The Village Voice would say more than that).  Even worse, having the switch from Ralph Fiennes scenes to Daniel Kross scenes did not work at all for me because the two just don't look like the twenty-something and fifty-something versions of the same character.  Kross himself is only 18 (shooting had to be rearranged so some of the steamier scenes could be filmed after his 18th birthday), and as he's asked to play a character very much older than himself there's something about that transition that removed  little bit of his It factor.  Winslet does much better playing a character at many different ages, but I think it goes without saying that it would be easier to play from 20 to 80 if you're 30 or 40 than if you're 20 or 90.   But when the film gets into the trial and into the ethical meat of its story it gained strength and power.  When in the last third or quarter of the movie we are with Fiennes alone as the older version of the character, I was no longer distracted by the poor match between the young and old.  Evidence of this is the fact that I've come to some realizations of my own about the movie as I've been chewing it over while writing this post that are deeper and more layered than even what I'd felt a week ago while watching the movie and thinking on it immediately thereafter, and that to me is a sign of a film that has some sticking power to it.

Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella were producers on the movie, and both passed away during the development process.  Both had a tendency to stuff their turkeys a little too much, especially when doing literary adaptations, Pollack with Out of Africa and Minghella with The English Patient and Cold Mountain (his Talented Mr. Ripley on the other hand was quite good).  Minghella was originally supposed to direct but ultimately passed the baton to Stephen Daldry, whose film credits include Billy Elliot and The Hours.  I'm glad of this.  I think this film would have brought out the worst in Minghella.  Daldry got a little bit starchy but ultimately gave enough life to the film and material to make it surprisingly good, and much better for the whole of it than I might have thought from the first 15 minutes.  I would recommend.

A worthy reminder that even stupid questions may have merit:  during the Q&A somebody asked which of the two characters left the relationship (it was obvious that Winslet had walked out on Kross) and why.  The answer given to the why tied in to the reveal during the trial and something that was going to happen at Winslet's day job that would have revealed sooner.  It was obvious in retrospect, and Winslet during the Q&A gave one of those "struggling to be polite" responses.  But... as I thought about it further the gap between Winslet's leaving and us getting the reveal during the trial was more than long enough for the connection to be rather hard to draw without having it specifically pointed out, and if not for this "stupid" question being asked I think I might have gone through life thinking "well, she just left, and who knows why."

1 comment:

Ann Nyberg said...

Hi Joshua,
I wanted to let you know about the soon to open Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and Theater in Hepburn's beloved town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
We will be opening in the summer of 2009 and until then we are a blog about all things Hepburn and also construction and renovation updates.
Come visit us and we'd love it if you'd link to us on your website to help us spread the word!
Thanks so much!