Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reel Thoughts: Nazis, Nazis Everywhere!

No fewer than seven films out now feature Holocaust or Nazi atrocities, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and now Valkyrie and The Reader.

Despite all the negative publicity surrounding Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, Bryan Singer’s film manages to be a taut history lesson about a group of Germans who conspired to kill Hitler. Cruise plays Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg, whose love of Germany brought on a hatred of Hitler and the Nazis. The supporting cast, playing men who aided or tried to stop the plot to kill der Fuhrer, includes wonderful performers like Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Eddie Izzard.

History buffs already know about this plot to take down the Nazis, and I was familiar enough with it (as is everyone who knows what happened in Hitler’s bunker) to know how it turns out, but it was still enthralling to watch how the event unfolded. Cruise handles himself well, never seeming like a little boy playing dress-up, while his British costars give uniformly excellent performances. If you enjoy espionage films done with Singer’s particular flair, you might want to take a ride to Valkyrie.

Based on the acclaimed novel, The Reader features Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet in an Oscar-worthy performance, as well as an extraordinary young man named David Kross. Kross plays Michael, Fiennes’ younger self, a fifteen year-old German schoolboy who falls in love with an enigmatic transit worker (Winslet). The two have a passionate affair, augmented by the woman’s constant desire to have the boy read to her. Years later, Michael is studying law and is shocked to find Hannah (Winslet) the main defendant in the trial he’s studying. How do you reconcile loving a person who is capable of inhuman acts? How do new generations of Germans overcome the horrors their elders allowed to happen?


The Reader has a wonderfully literate script by playwright David Hare and director Stephen Daldry does a wonderful job of keeping his audience off balance. Winslet, more so than in the depressing Revolutionary Road, gives a frighteningly complex performance, as a woman who committed vile acts in the name of honor and yet is sympathetic. Kross is engrossing as he portrays Michael’s sexual awakening and schoolboy heartbreak. Fiennes is given less showy work to do, and yet manages to explain with his performance what kind of a man Michael became. He is shut-off and distant, but finds himself forced to confront buried feelings.

The Reader is one of the best films of the year, and I think it will affect you profoundly if you let it.

UPDATE: The Reader and Valkyrieare now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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