A Literate, Powerful Joy, 8 January 2009
Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A tremendous two hour journey, skilfully produced by the late Anthony Minghella and wonderfully acted by the two central characters, Michael Berg and Hannah Schmidt, played by Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. Fiennes excels as the law student who enjoys a youthful summer romance with a bus conductress, Winslet, who subsequently is revealed as an Extermination Camp SS Guard. A compelling, moving, story is told around subject matter littered with moral bear-traps. Director David Daldrey, whose finest hour to date has been “Billy Elliot” handles the subject matter with calm authority, the screen play by David Hare, whose natural home is play writing, produces dialogue of conviction and weight, without sounding worthy or self important.
Although two hours long the plot is simple, Berg’s idyllic summer romance with Schmidt ends suddenly, and he next sees her on trial for Nazi War Crimes. The temptation to explore what makes ordinary people do bad things is resisted. Instead we have a simpler tale, of a repressed, illiterate woman, doing her best to survive herself during the war who finds herself at the furnace of evil. Her actions are neither justified, apologised for or fully explained. You make a judgement “as you see fit”, the advice offered to berg when he takes Schmidt’s financial legacy to a Holocaust survivors daughter.
The visceral power of the early sexual relationship is powerfully portrayed with David Kross playing a young Michael Berg, this, and her appreciation of having fine literature read to her dominate the opening scenes. During her trail for war crimes, Schmidt offers an ignorant innocence which condemns her. And although her subsequent self taught literacy apparently saves her, it also condemns her as well. Equally, although the cerebral berg enjoys a career as a lawyer, he too is emotionally repressed by the emotional maelstrom of that early affair from which he never recovers.
Some minor irritations are present. All the actors speak in English, barely a German word is heard, and Winslet and Fiennes effect a light cod German accent. Consequently German authenticity is somewhat compromised.Mindful of the fact that the author of the original book is German ,and it is set entirely in Germany, I think that some concessions to the local language would have been accepted by an English speaking audience.
If the screenplay is seen to favour Schmidt a little too sympathetically, a superb closing scene in which Llana Mather receives Bergs bequest more than corrects the balance. In a stunning cameo performance, actress Lens Olin, immaculately turned out in stark contrast to the wrecked and wretched Schmidt, refuses the money and informs Berg that there is “nothing” to learn from the camps. Not in an educational , but nihilistic sense. It is her that she suggests that Berg should do with the money “as he sees fit”. Itself, a metaphor for how we too should see this fine film.