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Interpreting 'The Reader'

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company

Bringing “The Reader,” Bernhard Schlink’s volatile novel, to the big screen posed significant challenges to just about everyone involved. First obstacle was the material’s weighty, difficult theme. It explores one of the most generally unexplored questions emergent from the Holocaust, one which directly addresses complex notions of collective memory not often seen in highfalutin Hollywood productions. It seeks to evoke the precise nature of the Holocaust’s legacy as perceived by the German generations born after the fact, and forced to confront the inexorable knowledge that loved ones had promulgated such a monumental atrocity.

In his adaptation, David Hare – acclaimed playwright and Oscar-nominated writer of “The Hours” – had a tough time remaining true to the broader ideas while also playing out the microcosmic post-war romance between Michael (David Kross) and much older Hanna (Kate Winslet), a former SS guard.

“It’s balancing out the metaphor about the romance of Germany with Nazism with the boy’s romance with her,” Mr. Hare said. “So how you keep control of the metaphor and make sure that in telling the intimate story, you’re not misleading about what you say about the broader story, that’s the very difficult thing.”

Ms. Winslet faced a different sort of obstacle, needing to find a way to understand and have empathy for an illiterate woman with a criminal past, without explaining away or forgiving her reprehensible actions.

“My job as the actress playing Hanna Schmitz, as the actress playing any part, is to understand the character and to ultimately love that character,” Ms. Winslet said. “And I did love Hanna, because I understood her as profoundly as I did at the end of the day. Did I sympathize with her? Yes, I did; but that doesn’t mean I sympathize with SS guards.”

A different sort of obstacle emerged during post-production. The movie was subjected to a rash of pre-release publicity when an argument between producer Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein over the film’s proper release date led the former to take his name off the project. Over the course of a very busy 2008, director Stephen Daldry scurried to complete the film while also overseeing rehearsals for the Broadway production of the stage version of “Billy Elliot,” the first film he directed.

“It’s true that Harvey wanting it to come out this year, and come out in America first has meant that it had to be finished at incredible breakneck speed, and greater speed than we would have wished,” Mr. Hare said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Still, all involved are proud of their work and its willingness to provoke impassioned reactions by looking at its subject in an unusually thoughtful fashion.

“This book has always stirred up violently contradictory reactions,” Hare said. “And it stirs them up because it makes us look at something we don’t actually want to look at, which is a process of truth and reconciliation. That’s what you have to live with if you make this film, but obviously we wanted to make it because I’m tired of a very complicated subject being made over-simple.”


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