Lowdown: A younger boy contends with learning the older woman had an affair with was a Nazi.
As Holocaust films go, The Reader is not your average one because it's more to do with the way Germany contends with its own history than it is a film about the tragedies done to others. As film rentals go, The Reader almost slipped under my radar because our rental place stocks it on DVD only and we primarily search for Blu-rays, indicating at the dangers of sticking with the more mainstream releases one tends to find on Blu-ray (while bearing in mind that at least by my criteria, The Reader is very a mainstream release, the way most English speaking film with major film stars are).
The Reader's story tells us of a young Berlin boy (German actor David Kross) in post World War 2 Germany, later switching to the story of the same boy but now as an adult (Ralph Fiennes). As a boy, our hero falls ill one day on his way back home and receives help from an adult woman (Kate Winslet). Liking the help he received he comes back to her place to show his gratitude, quickly finding himself in a very sexual affair with the woman, an affair that materializes through having sex and him reading the woman some classic stories. And then we learn the woman was a Nazi looking over Jews in concentration camps and overlooking the process of selection for extermination. Our boy - already damaged goods from having an affair with an older lady that prevents him from having affairs with girls his age - has to deal with the knowledge he was making love to the most notorious incarnation of evil in Western culture.
While most of the films that follow The Reader's lines I have been exposed to before have been based on a true story, The Reader's is based on a fiction book. As such it can stretch things here in there in order to make us think of things, and in this particular case the prevailing thought is about the way post Nazi Germany, represented by the boy, is dealing with the Nazi heritage represented by the woman. The metaphor works quite well, but... I couldn't help but feel The Reader wasn't half as good as a film as it could have been. It's hard for me to point exactly where the fault is: the acting is fine, although I did not find it spectacular (if you ask me, Winslet isn't half as good as she was in Revolutionary Road). True, there is some nudity in the film, even male one, but other than that the film seems to have been made in tried and tested ways rather than anything we haven't seen before. You can enjoy The Reader and you probably will, but that will almost surely be the result of the wise script and its metaphors rather than you witnessing something new and great in the art of cinema; and if that is the case, then perhaps it would be better to just read the book.
One complaint that was often thrown at The Reader was that it trivializes the image of the Nazi baddie and makes her/them appear approachable. I agree: The Reader makes the Nazi in the film look human and approachable but I don't see any problem with that. Unlike those who complain, I think it is of utmost importance for people to understand that the Nazis were humans who looked, ate and shat just like all other humans. This is important because people need to know everyone can become Nazi like, and once they know it they might even do something to prevent themselves and the people they're in contact with from becoming ones and from doing Nazi like acts. There is, after all, a lot of facism around us even though we tend to think of ourselves as living in purer societies. I therefore think The Reader is a step in the right direction: after all, people like Rudolf Höss were famous for being family men.
Best scene: Winslet, on trial, prefers being recognized as an evil Nazi to being recognize illiterate.
Technical assessment: Perhaps my lack of satisfaction with The Reader is a direct result of the poor quality picture on this DVD, incredibly sub-par for a contemporary film. All details are robbed of the picture here, and colors are all distorted.
Overall: I'll be harsh on The Reader and give it just 3 out of 5 stars, mainly because I was annoyed with the uninspiring way in which it was made.