Back to IndieWire

Oscar ’09: “The Reader” Director Stephen Daldry

Oscar '09: "The Reader" Director Stephen Daldry

Though literary works are catnip to filmmakers, it’s always dicey to reinvent one for the screen. Witness “Revolutionary Road,” which will send the unwary viewer reaching for the Welbutrin, despite the best efforts of Kate and Leo, reunited for first time since the boat went down. Trouble is, what often gets lost in the translation to screen is the element which can raise a dark book above merely depressing: language, a writer’s capital. Of course, very occasionally a film adaptation can be better than the novel – the case with “The English Patient,” which retained the original’s powerfully haunting tone, while spelling out the novel’s buried plot points.

Now along comes “The Reader” directed by Stephen Daldry, who commutes easily between film (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot“) and theater, where he first gained success (“The Inspector Calls,” “Billy Elliot” — currently on Broadway). Already there’s been critical grousing that Daldry’s two hour-plus “Reader,” scripted by David Hare, falls short of Bernhard Schlink‘s 1995 much praised, pared down novel. I would suggest that Daldry’s “Reader” falls into a separate category. Rather than viewing it as inferior or equal to its source material, it deserves to be seen simply as a freestanding creation: provocative and likely to divide viewers, affecting, and exquisitely filmed in hues that capture the very quality of memory.

The plot: in post-war Germany teenager Michael Berg (David Kross, later Ralph Fiennes) is drawn into a feverish, secretive affair with 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Sex is punctuated by Michael’s reading to Hanna from books by Homer, Mark Twain and Chekhov. Ten years later as a law student, Michael discovers during a trial for war crimes that his former lover worked as an SS guard. Talk about high concept — you can imagine why this project would have seduced Daldry, whose previous efforts marry bold story arc with social concerns. At bottom, “Reader” is a parable about how second-generation Germans must come to terms with the Holocaust and the role in it played by their fathers’ generation. The film ups the ante by tossing a formative erotic connection into the mix, creating an impossible conflict between heart and mind. At the same time, “Reader” avoids any vague notions of forgiveness or redemption. As Michael says, “When I condemned [Hanna’s crime] as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding … “

indieWIRE caught up with Stephen Daldry at the Hotel Carlisle’s Bemelmans Bar – complete with gingerbread house — before a lunch with “tastemakers,” according to Peggy Siegal. Unlike many filmmakers, Daldry ponders a question as if hearing it for the first time – or maybe wondering why he’s hearing it for the tenth.

indieWIRE: Why did Scott Rudin bail?

Stephen Daldry: He didn’t bail, that’s a little bit unfair. He’s one of my oldest friends and I speak to him every day. He withdrew because [lowering his voice] of his relationship with Harvey – they find it difficult to get on together.

iW: David Hare has said that trying to explore and understand Nazi crimes ia “a dangerous and volatile business. You can unintentionally cross a line that you don’t wish to.” In your view what were the risks of bringing “The Reader” to the screen?

SD: [Long pause] I think that there was a tendency in Germany when they started putting Germans on trial under German law — especially the Frankfurt trials of 1963 — to demonize the individuals who’d been involved in mass murder. And retrospectively there was a feeling that the demonization of particular individuals was a way in which the German people could… isolate those individuals and say they were Nazi fanatics or sadists. Whereas the truth, as we’ve come to know subsequently, is that actually millions of ordinary Germans were involved in the mass murder of the Jews. A lot of serious scholarship — whether it’s “the banality of evil” or “Hitler’s willing executioners” — is about the ordinary Germans who played a part in the Holocaust, not just the mad fanatics. Inevitably, therefore, if you’re doing a film about a Nazi guard who’s not necessarily a demon and you see her as a human being, it’s a complex issue. As the professor in the film says, 8,000 worked at Auschwitz; only 6 were convicted of murder. It’s a frightening statistic.

iW: Cynthia Ozick has said, “[‘The Reader’] is the product, conscious or not, of a desire to divert [attention] from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur.” And Frederic Raphael: “no one could recommend ‘The Reader’ withut a blind eye for evil.” The novel has also been criticized for the idea – and I’m speaking of the film as well — that Hanna’s illiteracy is somehow an excuse for her crimes.

SD: Obviously Hanna’s illiteracy is not an excuse for her crimes, Mr. Schlink has made it very clear that she was involved in a very specific war crime, not just as a passive bystander. It is also true that levels of literacy in pre-war Germany were high. It’s also true there were millions of people who were illiterate. There are 80,000 illiterate people in New York City today, according to literacy experts we spoke to. Of the 8,000 people who worked at Auschwitz there were many different stories of how they found their way to be working there. And again some of those stories would include elements of sadism and monsters … This is one story about one woman who found her way there. But the subject of Mr. Schlink’s book has much more to do with moral illiteracy on a metaphorical level.

iW: Yes, you really have the feeling during the trial that there’s something wrong with her brain… When she says, in a chilling moment, ‘that was what I was supposed to do.’

SD: Because of what I would call moral illiteracy. One of the things when we were filming I spoke to Kate about was a lady who says she has to wash her children. So she puts them in the dishwasher. And you say to her, once you put them in the dishwasher you’re going to kill them. And she says, but the children were dirty and I had no other means of washing them. And you say, but you are going to kill the children. And she just repeats the idea that they were dirty … There’s a moral disconnect in the character.

iW: Schlink also acknowledges that he has been criticized for not unambiguously condemning Hanna. And the fact that Michael doesn’t either. At the screening I attended David Hare was asked, How are you supposed to feel about Hanna? Are you supposed to excuse her? And he said, I can’t answer that, we just throw the story out there. So: my question for you: How do you feel about her?

SD: I think it’s unequivocally clear in the film that she’s a war criminal.

iW: Yet there’s audience sympathy for her because of her intimacy with Michael.

SD: If you’re following the story of a human being there are times when you sympathize and times when you are repelled. If you’re telling a story about a real human being and not a monster, there are going to be moments when that person has real blood and real feelings and real thoughts and a real imaginative world — yet gets involved in war crimes. That’s true of Hanna and a variety of genocides that we’ve seen post-war. If we start restricting genocide to monsters I think you’re in very dangerous water because it’s a facile and dangerous excuse for the reality of real people being involved in terrible things… Demonic things have been perpetrated by real people, not necessarily demons.

iW: A tricky distinction.

SD: The other analogy I’d use: There’s been much written about wives who find out their husbands watch child porno on their computers. And sometimes those marriages are with children. Does that mean their marriage was entirely invalid for whole years? Does that invalidate the father’s relationship with the children and the children’s love for their father? Does that mean that that man is only a monster and should never be spoken to again? Does that mean that love never really existed and it was a lie? And why, if that’s the case, do so many women whose husbands are tried for sex crimes continue in their marriage? Things are complicated, not black and white. If you want black and white, people should go watch cartoons. If we live in the cartoon world with goodies and baddies then the world is a very dangerous place, as we’ve seen in the U.S. and their foreign policy for the last 8 years.

iW: Some critics feel Hanna is opaque, that she never comes emotionally alive.

SD: I have no response to that. She’s a complex character and you have a whole variety of conflicted emotions towards her. What’s hard for people when they describe her as opaque is that they don’t understand her motivations. And I think that’s great! It’s not all wrapped up — one plus one equals two, two plus two equals four. It’s how Mr. Schlink wrote her and David wrote her.

iW: Why didn’t Michael tell the court she couldn’t read?

SD: Why do you think?

iW: Out of respect for her shame over being illiterate?

SD: And/or?

iW: I can’t think beyond that.

SD: There’s not one motivation – there’s a number of motivations. Michael says to the professor he couldn’t possibly talk to her. And what we do know is how impossible it is for that generation of Germans to talk to their parents and teachers and pastors. So the idea of getting into a dialogue with someone who has perpetrated a great evil is hard – [especially] somebody you love. Michael says in the film he doesn’t reveal her illiteracy because she’s ashamed. But how much of that is out of respect for her and how much out of his own sense of profound hurt and anger? I’d say it’s a combination of emotions, not just one.

iW: Another question about motivation: Most of us manage to experience first love without becoming, like Michael, emotionally crippled. Is he plausible, or does his story shade into parable here?

SD: I think that in simple narrative terms, it’s not just because it’s his first love – it’s because he discovers that his first love is the perpetrator of a great crime. You love with innocence and purity, whether you’re a child or a young man – and then that innocence is dirtied and sullied by knowing you were dealing with someone who did monstrous acts. As a representative of the German second generation, he feels emotionally tarnished and discombobulated profoundly in his ability to love

iW: David Hare made a point of saying he considers voiceover a cop-out. How then did he decide to structure this first person narrative?

SD: You have to find an equivalent in film language. In the book, the author’s act of writing is the act of coming to terms with the past. So in the film you could have a man at the typewriter at the beginning, then at the end. But you have to find an equivalence to the confessional urge that he has in the book, that need for truth and reconciliation… Michael’s need to describe the story to the next generation in the hope of cleansing – and that’s represented by his daughter.

iW: So the entire story that he’s about to recount at the end of the film to his daughter circles back to the beginning.

SD: Correct.

iW: Why did you cast David Kross as Michael. You found him when he was 15?

SD: I found him at 16, started shooting when he was 17, and we filmed the intimate scenes when he was 18. He is a very serious and very wonderful and very smart and very secure young man.

iW: Did he have to audition nude?

SD: Certainly not. Are you mad?

iW: Do you have difficulty switching back and forth from theater to film?

SD: I’m comfortable in both mediums. The next thing I’ll do is a little play of David Hare’s at the National Theatre. It’s called “Berlin,” he wrote it while we were filming there.

iW: I was struck by a quote from you in The Advocate. When people heard about the birth of your daughter, they’d say, does that mean you’re not gay anymore? And you apparently said, oh give me a break. We wanted to have kids! We’re allowed to do everything. I can have kids if I’m gay. And I can also get married and have a fantastiic life. To all questions regarding my marriage the answer is ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes!’ to everything… Would you say your lifestyle is unusual?

SD: I wouldn’t have thought so, no, not in New York City.

iW: How do you balance all those roles?

SD: Oh, it’s not that hard. There’s many more tricky things. You should see all my fucking straight friends – how do they balance all their mistresses? I think my life is incredibly secure, sane, and stable. I have the best marriage in the world.

iW: Getting back to “The Reader,” what was the most challenging aspect of the shoot?

SD: Coping with Anthony Minghella‘s and Sydney Pollack‘s deaths during filming, that was a tricky one. It’s very interesting — I have to say this back to you — why on earth do you want clarity in character motivation? I just don’t understand it, it’s come up a few times before. Why is there a need to reduce character motivation to simple cause and effect? The great thing about Michael is he’s the classic inactive hero. If you go to the inactive hero — say, Hamlet — and you try to, you know … well, why doesn’t Hamlet just go and sort it out? Why doesn’t he just go and say to Claudius, you know – STOP IT! Well, you wouldn’t have a play, would you. The point is he doesn’t. Why doesn’t Michael say out loud Hanna can’t read and write. Well, he doesn’t! That’s not the problem, that’s what makes it interesting. That’s what cripples him. He betrays her three times. And he does feel it’s a betrayal. D’y know what I mean?

iW: I do.

SD: I’m much more interested in Aristotle as a route to character. He says there’s no such thing as character — character is only the amalgam of all the things you’ve done in your life and character can only be seen retrospectively. It’s also late Stanislavsky. But Americans like the neat wrap up, they love things all tied up!

iW: You’ll have to contend with that.

SD: I know, [there’s] people going, but WHY? But there we are …

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox