British actor Ralph Fiennes stars as Michael Berg, a German lawyer who corresponds with a German prisoner named Hanna Schmitz, played by British actress Kate Winslet. And, I'd never thought I'd say this, but I would've preferred to see less of Fiennes.
The bulk of this story is told in flashback with young German actor David Kross, playing the role of the teenaged Michael Berg. Kross' role explains why Berg corresponds to a murder convict and how he came to know Schmitz. It's this part of the film that is the most compelling.
Fiennes' role starts as a framing device, a device that doesn't give the actor too much to do. It concludes with showing the audience the rather anti-climatic aftermath of the relationship between the two. Spoiler alert! The movie ends with Hanna Schmitz, who for most of her life was illiterate, learning to read.
It's Berg, in her waning years, who is instrumental in spurring Schmitz's literacy, but I dare say we didn't need Fiennes to basically play delivery boy here.
We're not even introduced to Fiennes' character for that long before we're thrust into the world inhabited by David Kross. Kross plays Fiennes' persona of Michael Berg between the ages of 15 and 23.
If I were to single out one performance from this film that I thought was extraordinary, it wouldn't be the work of Fiennes or Winslet, the two Oscar-nominated actors. I would single out the work of Kross.
They're playing the same character, but Kross outshines Fiennes. In my mind, this movie belongs to Kross. Kross' Berg begins a sexual affair with Winslet's Schmitz. It's his first time with a woman and it's obvious he has a lot to learn. Berg is still a virginal, high school boy when he meets Schmitz on a rainy day. Berg falls ill and needs her help getting home. Schmitz offers a hand. Later, when Berg comes to thank her, he becomes smitten.
Berg falls in love with Schmitz. He is consumed by her. He ditches his friends and abandons school just to be with this woman who arguably could be old-enough to be his mother.
Berg never needs to say the word love. In his face, his eyes, and in every movement of his body, he tells you exactly how he feels. Kross opens himself up to the screen and reveals everything. His character reads various books to Winslet's, but, when it comes to his emotions, it's the audience who gets to sumptuously read him. To quote a cliche, Kross as an actor is an open book, a book reading to us.
The movie takes a turn when it's revealed that this is actually a Holocaust film. It's not directly one. The story never goes any farther back in time than 1958, but yet, this is a Holocaust story. It's not quite the Nuremberg trials, but it approaches that.
Another spoiler alert! Hanna Schmitz was a guard for the Nazis. She actually worked at Auschwitz and was responsible for the deaths of 300 people. Even though she pleads guilty, her trial puts into question whether or not she was truly responsible. However, I don't think the film does a good job of examining that.
There's a brilliant moment when Winslet's character asks what you would have done, if you were in her shoes, and there's a deafening silence that tells you everything you need to know. Schmitz seemingly wasn't an anti-Semite. She was merely complicit in what was happening, but it remains to be asked. What was her alternative?
This isn't another war picture or Jewish victims story. It's not even about building sympathy for this woman. I would have liked it to be more about understanding her, but I don't think it's about that either. It's more about an unlikely love and the Holocaust's tangential affects and collateral damage.
Not to cast aspersions on Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry (The Hours and Billy Elliot), but, there is a scene at the end where Fiennes and actress Lena Olin, who plays a Holocaust survivor, sit and talk about what's happened. Fiennes gives her a tin box, which initiates both of them saying how this whole situation took something from them, a kind of innocence.
This was a totally pointless scene, possibly there to give Fiennes more screen time, or merely honor the last third of this Oprah Book Club novel. Yet, I would have preferred going back to Kross and giving us more of him. David Kross is an actor to watch.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated R for nudity and sexuality
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.