3 Stars Movies

Laurence Olivier wrestles Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil

Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys From Brazil is one of those they-don’t-make-them-that-way-anymore that I miss: the paranoid thriller that blends sci-fi with politics. I’m thinking Coma, The Manchurian Candidate, and Jacob’s Ladder.

It’s often a fool’s errand to complain about plausibility in genre flicks, but I think internal consistency is a reasonable baseline. So I’m not quite sure I buy Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman’s (Laurence Olivier) rapid leaps of reason. Solely on the evidence of pair of identical twins on separate continents (with a colleague’s unverified assertion he may have seen a third, making it triplets), he leaps a little too quickly to a very fantastical conclusion: cloning.

The proceedings are interrupted for a film-within-film walking us through the pseudoscience. It’s an odd creative choice to present human cloning as something so matter-of-fact, making me wonder when Dolly the sheep was cloned in this alternate reality, if not in 1996. what other wild scientific advances exist in this world: jet packs, teleportation, iPods?

“Take your time, old men don’t go back to sleep once they’ve been awakened.”

For the movie to suddenly jump into the extraordinary realm of science-fiction, equally extraordinary evidence is required to convince a skeptical character to believe. If the fantastic is mundane to the characters of the film, it’s not very impressive to the audience either.

Also common to the genre is its fatalism; the Nazi cloning masterplan is not something that needs to be prevented. In fact, it already happened, years before. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen pulls a similar narrative trick, but the reveal lands with a heavier dramatic weight; it’s too late for the heroes to do anything about it.

Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil
Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil.

Gregory Peck is mostly reserved in his portrayal of “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, save for a ferocious scene in which he exhorts a Hitler tot to seize what he believes is his destiny. Bruno Ganz appears, and would later play Hitler himself in Downfall (2004). As for Olivier, his jewish accent is really something to hear.

It all comes down to two old men clumsily biting and scratching each other on the living room floor of a Lancaster farmhouse. It’s one of the more realistic fights ever seen on screen — the closest comparison I can think of is Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones in The Rules of Engagement.

3 Stars Movies

Kate Winslett evokes emotional illiteracy in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader

Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot), producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader examines evolving notions of German postwar guilt and culpability.

Unfolding across three distinct time periods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Reader hinges on a significant reveal in its middle that recasts previously seen events. This is not to compare it to more infamous examples of stunt plotting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both easier to introduce without spoiling their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton beat each other up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis investigate ghosts! Without its crucial piece of information revealed midway through, one would be forced to describe The Reader as merely a story about a young man who has an affair with an older woman.

In 1958 Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger, Hanna (Kate Winslet). For him, the relationship is heatedly emotional and erotic, but for the strangely dispassionate woman it seems to be about fulfilling some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audience, yet) doesn’t understand. Her sexual advances are sudden and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assignation.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
It says right here in our contract that we have to film a half dozen sex scenes…

She bathes him harshly and dispassionately, certainly not as a lover, or even a mother would her child. Hanna repeatedly reinforces their age differential by insisting on calling him “kid,” but reverses traditional age roles by having him read to her. As the summer passes, she more overtly trades sex for reading. The highly regimented Hanna has excelled at her job of selling bus tickets, and faces a promotion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abruptly leaves town, cutting off the affair.

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a seminar studying the Holocaust, he attends the trial of several accused concentration camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Hanna. Despite managing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapologetically tells the truth, seemingly unaware of how doing so indicts herself. Michael is horrified to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infamous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The particular crime she is on trial for is locking hundreds of prisoners inside a burning church. Her self-serving cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own culpability.

One seemingly minor anecdote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and protect. The prisoners suspected her of being a lesbian, an exploitation they could understand, but in fact she only asked that they read aloud to her. She would not protect her girls forever; when one met their death, she would simply select another girl. This anecdote is understood by the court to be an inexplicable quirk of an evil person, a mere matter of character, but Michael realizes the truth: she was, and remains, illiterate.

Michael is forced to recast the meaning of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her captive, and she similarly used him for her literary edification (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fantasied, love, or at least sexual gratification). Was he somehow to her like the girls she chose in the camp to entertain her? Did she do so out of self-interest, or to give them temporary comfort before they died? Or some combination of the two, a kind of tradeoff?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
Kate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Hanna could absolve herself of at least one charge. By admitting her illiteracy, she could prove that she was not solely responsible for covering up the church incident. But she mystifyingly chooses to accept culpability rather than admit she can’t read. The mystery of the character is how anyone would be so ashamed of their illiteracy that they would effectively condemn themself to a lifetime prison sentence instead of the 3-4 years that her cohorts received.

Michael could help her case by coming forward, but does not. Is he protecting his privacy, or effectively choosing to punish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, looking and sounding more and more like Laurence Olivier) opts to give her a significant present from afar. He begins with cassette tapes of him reading, and later provides the tools to help her teach herself to read.

A key question is whether or not he has forgiven her for her crimes against humanity, not to mention those against him: breaking his heart and arguably sexually using him. Technically, Hanna is a pedophile. Such crimes are usually imagined as being perpetrated by men. Certainly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sexual awakening.

But Michael is in fact damaged; as he grows into an adult, his ability to forge solid relationships (either romantically with women, or as a parent to his own daughter) is stunted. When he first met Hanna, he saw her as a sexy adult. But in prison she is reduced to a childlike state, learning to read like a little girl. When the adult Michael comes to visit her, it is he that is the adult and she the trembling dependent looking up to him.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
This rare shot from the set of The Reader shows David Kross and Kate Winslet in costume.

Because The Reader is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gorgeous and frequently naked, one instinctively wants to sympathize with her character Hanna. But the fact of the matter is that Hanna is a monster. What makes the character interesting is that she evidently can’t see the enormity of what makes her, for lack of a better word, evil.

The eminently practical Hanna does not seem to be a woman of many passions. She even seems surprised at first that the young Michael might be attracted to her sexually. When we meet her, she spends her joyless life alone in a drab flat and mundane job selling bus tickets. We later learn that she approached her “responsibilities” at Auschwitz with the same rigidity. She baldly admits to the events and what she did, not even really hiding behind the standard excuse of just following orders. In her mind, she seems to have been acting out of duty and responsibility to execute (so to speak) the requirements of her job. Hanna is so madly rule-oriented that she equated the subjugation of her prisoners to being a kind of protective responsibility.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of someone who is psychologically protecting themselves from confronting what they have done. Whether she compartmentalized her emotions or didn’t have any to begin with, Hanna was able to function as a cog in a giant atrocity machine, and to live on dispassionately afterwards. She must not be alone, for countless people operated just like her, making the Holocaust possible.

Hanna is interesting to compare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi commandant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tortured by his attraction to a Jewish woman that his rank (and German society at the time) dictated that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nevertheless seems more able than Hanna to faintly glimpse his depravity.

Ralph Fiennes in The Reader
Ralph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader‘s sex scenes.

Ron Rosenbaum took offense to the “Holocaust porn” aspects of both the novel and the film for Slate. Is the story “redemptive,” as Rosenbaum accuses? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illiteracy was something to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enormity of her crimes. It was easier for her to allow herself to go to jail under the umbrella, in her own mind at least, of continuing to hide the much lesser of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and novel take the stance that illiteracy is a greater shame than enabling the Holocaust; but rather Hanna’s intellectual deficiency is emotionally easier for her to cling to than admit to the oblivious herd mentality that allowed her to rigidly follow the rules and help effect the Final Solution.

Rosenbaum also accuses the film of portraying ordinary Germans as being ignorant of the Holocaust. Perhaps Rosenbaum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Professor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), himself a camp survivor, holds a seminar with some of his best law students discussing German guilt and culpability. I found it interesting to consider the first generation of Germans (represented by Michael) that grew up after the war, surrounded by adults that lived through it and had varying degrees of involvement (active or passive). Some of the most reprehensible characters in the film (even more so than Hanna) are her comrades that deny that anything happened. The only character I can think of that may support Rosenbaum’s accusation is the war crimes judge presiding over Hanna’s case. He would have theoretically been in a position of power during the war, but is seen affecting outrage at Hanna’s crimes.

Personally, I found Hanna to be an interesting character, which is not the same as sympathetic. I would describe her as infantilized and not even really worthy of pity. My interpretation of the story is that Michael chose to punish her by allowing her to indict herself on the witness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palatable excuse of keeping the secret of her illiteracy. She avoided accepting her own war crimes in order to make it possible to live with herself. The adult Michael gifts her a belated education, which is not necessarily an act of kindness. Perhaps he believes that stimulating her intelligence and imagination might enable her to understand her guilt. If so, he utterly succeeds, for she kills herself. It’s ambiguous whether her suicide is about guilt or simply over her fear of functioning in society after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the outwardly cold Hanna is even capable of having buried emotions and guilt is the fact that she is interested in books at all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make logical sense that this dispassionate person who seduces and fucks with as little emotion as she sells bus tickets, works in a concentration camp, or allows hundreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for literature.

Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Reader by Ron Rosenbaum

3 Stars Movies

Tim Roth undertakes an old man’s folly in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth

Youth Without Youth received a shockingly poor reception for the first film in years from a major filmmaker, garnering a middling 43 on Metacritic and a painful 29 from RottenTomatoes. In January 2008, this blogger found himself in a room with a bunch of journalists from genre publications like Fangoria and (Weird, right? It was a work thing. Anyway…). Several of them had recently reviewed Youth Without Youth, and the buzz was extremely negative. Now having finally seen it myself, it is this blogger’s opinion it received an unfair bad rap.

Tim Roth in Youth Without Youth
Recline thy weary head betwixt my thighs, old man

Why would the likes of Fangoria be interested in a prestige period piece? Needless to say, Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most famous living filmmakers. Many young movie lovers first discover an appreciation for film through the canonical The Godfather Parts I & II and Apocalypse Now (and hopefully later graduate to the subtler pleasures of The Conversation). Alas, he went tragically awry with the expensive folly One From the Heart in 1982, and spent decades digging out of the financial hole.

People have been waiting for years for him to return to form after many years of work-for-hire (The Rainmaker) and misjudged sequels to past glories (The Godfather Part III). But the main reason for sci-fi & horror fans’ interest in Youth Without Youth is that it is in fact Coppola’s first science fiction. It is, however, more in the contemplative mode of The Man Who Fell to Earth than Fangoria’s usual purview.

Francis Ford Coppola directing Youth Without Youth
Oh, Francis, you know you’re going to catch flak for that beret…

The freeform plot meanders to say the least, which clearly isn’t the point, but will frustrate viewers anticipating a more lucid science fiction conceit. The academic Dominic (Tim Roth) undertakes a project literally too big to finish in a lifetime: a complete history and analysis of linguistics. In a true example of careful-what-you-wish-for, the aged and suicidal intellectual is struck by lightning and mysteriously restored to his youth.

Roth is at his best in these scenes, where he carries his younger body with the gait and posture of an old man. As he strives to complete his massive folly (could Coppola identify?), he is aided by a sympathetic Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), evades the Nazis, and is haunted by an incarnation of his youthful love Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara). Youth Without Youth is definitely an old man’s film (I mean that as a compliment), for the themes of rejuvenation, doubles, and transmutation/reincarnation echo throughout Dominic’s extended life.

Please see Jaimie Stuart’s excellent and succinct appreciation (at the bottom of page), suggesting that one possible reason for the film’s poor reviews was that the digital format transferred poorly to large screens but looks ravishing on DVD. It does.

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