The back flap of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 German-language The Reader hails it as "a novel of emotional awakening that you'll never forget." But David Hare, the celebrated British playwright who adapted Schlink's novel for the screen, says it's more about the impact of the Holocaust on succeeding generations. "That is where the book's originality lay. How do you live in the shadow of a great ethnic crime?" It's Hare's third book-to-film adaptation and his second collaboration with Stephen Daldry, who previously directed his screenplay of The Hours. As with that film, The Reader also presents a bleak look at the human condition. "[People] think of me as a depressive intellectual," admits Hare.
The first half of The Reader chronicles 16-year-old Michael Berg's (David Kross) introduction to sexuality, which comes in the form of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an older woman who helps him home after he gets sick in the street outside of her apartment building. When he returns weeks later to thank her, they begin a torrid love affair.
Hanna eventually slows things down and asks Michael to start reading to her before their clandestine copulation sessions begin. Soon he's narrating everything from Tintin to Lady Chatterley's Lover. "Disgusting," she says. "Keep going." These rendezvous continue until Hanna abruptly moves away, without warning. Years later, Michael encounters her again; this time, she's the accused in a Nazi war-crimes trial that Michael attends as a law student. The third part of the film deals with the ramifications of that trial and how it affects Michael as an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes).
Although the particular criminal case in the film is fictitious, it parallels the actual trials that were occurring in Germany during that time. "In that 20-year period after the war, there was this strange silence about what had happened," Hare says. "It was broken by the Auschwitz Trials in the early Sixties. This was the first time Germany began to look at what it had done." Interestingly, Hare saw a similar struggle within the Jewish survivor community: "You find a parallel silence in Israel where the survivors, by and large, were similarly shamed at having survived when so many of their friends, family, and colleagues had died."
With the film's graphic depiction of sex, Hare worried about making the Holocaust seem pornographic. "We were very concerned – and I think this we have to be very clear about – we were worried that if the film became too sexual, we would seem to be equating Nazism and sexuality. There is nothing sexy about the Nazis, and that is not in any way what either the book or the film is about." Hare focused his attention on the book's analogy between Michael's infatuation with Hanna and Germany's infatuation with Nazism during the war. "The way that metaphor was sustained over a 30-year period, I found that pretty wonderful and really an exciting subject for a film."
This meant a lot of editing of Hare's original draft, which he claims was much more erotic. "My original script was raunchier; it would be true to say. There was more sex. There was more nudity." Even though he toned it down, the sex in the film has been drawing a lot of attention, especially from American audiences. "I am very surprised that some American audiences have said to me: 'Oh my God. This is so bold!'" Hare says. "I don't quite know what happened to the American cinema, where saturation levels of violence are acceptable, and yet anything that is remotely erotic or sexual seems to be frowned upon. I simply don't understand what is happening in this country for that to be so."
Despite having adapted several high-profile novels for film with another in progress (he's currently working on Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections), Hare prefers writing for theatre, which is where he's performed the bulk of his work. (His papers – including typescript drafts, rehearsal scripts, and theatre programs – are collected at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center.) "I basically chose to spend my life in the theatre because it is less heartbreaking. What happens to movies is so unpredictable. It really chews you up. Whereas in the theatre there is some sort of justice, there is absolutely no justice in cinema. I see great movies which nobody goes to, and I see appalling movies which huge numbers of people go to. ... It is all a total lottery in the cinema."
The Reader opens in Austin on Friday. See Film Listings for review.
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