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'The Reader': A Holocaust Story Lost In Translation

Adapting a literary novel to film is always tricky, and it's all the more so when language itself is among the book's subjects. Thus begin the problems of The Reader, a British movie of a well-reviewed German novel about issues both moral and bookish.

The movie is in English, of course, which immediately puts some viewers at a disadvantage: They can't know that the German title, Der Vorleser, refers only to someone who reads out loud.

That person is Michael, introduced as a melancholy lawyer (Ralph Fiennes) in mid-'90s Berlin. But he first became that sort of reader almost 40 years earlier, when he was 15 (and played by David Kross).

Like the earlier The Hours, also from director Stephen Daldry, The Reader leaps about in time — which doesn't boost its momentum. Rather than evoking memory's knotted tapestry, the relentless flashbacks and flash-forwards seem merely mechanical.

One day in 1958, teenage Michael is overcome by illness on his way home from school. He's helped by Hanna (stalwart Kate Winslet), a tram conductor who generally keeps to herself. After a long recuperation, Michael returns to thank his benefactor. Soon, Hanna's bathing him, and when he steps from the tub, he discovers that she too is naked.

The two meet regularly for sex thereafter, and after the first few trysts, Hanna demands a singular form of foreplay: Michael must read to her. Chekhov, Twain, Tintin and Lady Chatterley's Lover — "This is disgusting ... go on" — are among the schoolboy's selections.

Michael tells Hanna he loves her, and she sometimes hints that she shares his feelings. Then she disappears.

Hanna has two secrets, neither of which is hard to guess. One of them, which can be intuited simply from the place and period, is confirmed eight years later. Now a law student, Michael joins his professor (a sly Bruno Ganz) and classmates as observers at a trial. The defendants are former death-camp guards, and one of them is Hanna.

Personifying postwar Germany, Michael is conflicted. He wants to help Hanna, yet is repulsed by what she did. For many years, Michael is haunted by Hanna, who remains his great love. But all he can bring himself to do is become her reader again, reciting books onto cassette tapes that he sends to her in prison.

Long divorced and distant from his grown-up daughter, the morose lawyer is supposedly scarred by his underage fling with a woman twice his age. (He's so bummed that he can't even rouse himself to emulate the other cast members' German accents.) Michael is apparently meant to be the last of Hanna's victims, the postwar equivalent of the doomed children who read to her while behind barbed wire.

Yet all The Reader offers to support this parallel is the older Michael's funk. When his teenage self is in bed with Hanna, in scenes that are alluringly lighted and frankly erotic, the lovers appear quite happy. The legal age of consent aside, Michael does not look like he's being manipulated or molested.

Some crucial points are simply lost in David Hare's script, which abbreviates Michael's strained relationship with his father and eliminates the books that influence Hanna as her prison term nears its end. The effect is muddled, so that this potentially horrific tale bewilders more than it shocks.

Ultimately, the older Michael gets a sharp lecture from a Holocaust survivor (a fine cameo by Lena Olin). Yet the issue of guilt remains unresolved. For closure, The Reader's viewers just may have to open the book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.