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Filmmakers Discuss: The Reader

On the eve of the film's release at the Tribeca Cinema Series, director Stephen Daldry and actress Lena Olin discuss what makes The Reader a must-see picture this Oscar season.
Kate Winsley and Stephen Daldry on The Reader SetThe Reader stars Kate Winslet and David Kross (as a young Ralph Fiennes) as March/June lovers in a post-WWII Germany. German lawyer Bernhard Schlink's layered and provocative book was a Oprah's Book Club pick in 1999, which of course propelled it directly to bestseller status. It was only a matter of time before the intricate book was turned into a film, but it wasn't easy. The Reader opens today in New York at the Paris Theatre.


On the eve of The Reader's release, the Tribeca Cinema Series hosted a special screening of the film, followed by a discussion between director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and actress Lena Olin (who has a dual role in the film, as mother and daughter survivors of the Holocaust). Legendary producer Harvey Weinstein introduced the players and the project, and the conversation was moderated by Dade Hayes, New York Bureau Chief at Variety.


[Readers, please note that there are spoilers in this discussion. If you do not know the end of the film, and you plan to see it, bookmark this piece and read it after you do.]


Harvey WeinsteinHarvey Weinstein: This project started twelve years ago when my daughter got sick one night. My head of development said, "There’s a wonderful book I want you to read that will definitely not make a movie." I was on my own that night, with my first baby, and I read the novel from about midnight to 6 am. I called my head of acquisition in the morning and said, “Go to Munich, meet Bernhard Schlink, and don’t come back unless you get the rights to this book.” Thankfully for us, that happened.


Originally, Anthony Minghella, who produced the movie, was going to direct the movie, and Sydney Pollack—well, you know, both Anthony and Sydney didn’t make it to see the end of this project, which is the saddest part for me. Anthony loved Stephen Daldry, and trusted him with his vision, and trusted Stephen’s own vision, and the two of them got to work together on the movie. And David Hare came on the write the script, and I think Stephen has just done a masterful job.


And when I think about that night twelve years ago, just reading this book—with all its themes and all the questions it raised—what it did was remind me of when I was a kid and going to movies, and I would see Francois Truffaut films, and no one knew what the hell the movie meant! We would all figure out 17 different endings and 27 different interpretations... or [a movie like] Five Easy Pieces. So this is a movie that asks questions.


Dade Hayes: It’s great to have you all here. Harvey set it up with how he came to the material. Stephen, what was it that you found so captivating about telling this story in this time in Germany?


Stephen Daldry: A friend of mine gave me the novel at dinner and said, "You might enjoy this." I read it on the train and missed my stop and had to turn around and go back. I think the question that always occurs to me when I read or engage in something I might make into a project is whether I want to spend two years of my life with the material. This seemed to be such a fantastically rich and complex—even contradictory—piece of work, and I loved it. I wanted to do something about post-war Germany, and this kind of rang out and sang out to me.


Hayes: [Can you talk about] the so-called Second Generation, this entire wave of people who grew up after the war, not knowing the full extent of what went on, and the horrors? It seems important to have the central relationship in the film—as in the book—[be between] a young boy who is part of that second generation, and Hanna, who was directly involved [with the war].


Stephen DaldryDaldry: I think Mr. Schlink is speaking for his generation when he tries to talk about the profound sense of betrayal they felt towards their parents, their teachers, their pastors... After the war, there was a shroud of secrecy that that generation was brought up under. And then trying to come to terms with the idea of the monstrous acts of their forebears... The key question for Mr. Schlink is how then is it possible to love [these people]? Does [the knowledge] invalidate that love, does it poison it? How then do they go forward with those relationships, with those parents? I think the central question for Mr. Schlink is the question of love within the context of horror.


Hayes: Lena, let me ask you about your performances, plural. It had not initially been conceived this way, right?


Lena Olin: When I read the script, I fell in love with Ilana, of course, but also with the mother, who testifies in the trial. And I had this idea because my feeling is that we all turn into our mothers, at some point in our lives—we do—and I think you inherit the pain and the joy and the energy and the fury on the female side in a very magic way, in every family, and certainly in mine. So I called Stephen and said I want to play the mother, too.


Hayes: I wanted to ask you both about that indelible scene at the end with Ralph Fiennes. I think [the scene at the end] introduces an interesting question that looms over the film, even as I reflect on it now: that amazing exchange where she basically says, "If you want a catharsis, don’t go to the camps. The camps are not a therapy session." Is there an indictment of not just him, but also the narrative itself? Is there some meta-reading, maybe, where watching this story is part of the question that she’s asking, or the frustration that she’s feeling? Can you unpack that a little bit?


Daldry: I spent a lot of time going through the depiction of survivors in films. I was interested in finding a different kind of survivor, because often they are depicted as profoundly damaged people who are not surviving in society. I wanted to portray this woman as functioning—that she had genuinely survived. That’s not to say the ghosts were not there, and the damage wasn’t there, but she was flourishing in American society in a very successful way. She had absolute moral clarity about the story, and about what this man thought he might be doing—or perhaps that he didn’t understand what he was doing—this moral blurring of this act of trying to bring this money to a survivor... Obviously, she had to reject that profoundly.


And of course she has a German sitting on her sofa, who in some way she understands is suffering from his relationship with this woman. I think it was your idea [indicating Olin] that she should repeat a phrase. When he actually, finally says, “Can I give this money in Hanna’s name?” she bounces it back to him and says, using a phrase he’d used, “As you see fit.” That it’s not for her to say, it’s his responsibility, both as an individual and as a German, to work out how to deal with this.


Lena OlinOlin: You think [scenes] through so carefully, and then the camera starts rolling, and with someone like Ralph, things happen, between people, just like in life. You don’t plan it, you don’t think about it, but suddenly there are forces between you, that may add to or contradict what you had planned ahead. And I think that was logical, because here is this man who is completely broken, who for the first time in his life confesses to her his traumatic experience as a young kid. And there’s something very sad about him, and very touching about him, and I think on some level, she must not embrace him, but she cannot be completely cold towards him.


Daldry: We only finished the film quite recently, and we are only now getting a little bit of response about certain issues in the film—issues to do with sexuality, and issues about dealing with the subject matter at all—and it always struck me that this was the most controversial scene. If you were going to have a controversy about the film, it would be about this scene, and it’s not come up. [Controversy] never is where you think it is.

Hayes: Can you talk about the process with the other actors? Were your experiences with them as exploratory, with a similar collaborative atmosphere?


Daldry: Yes. Ralph has spent a lot of time in the theatre, so the process of rehearsal is not alien to him, which I need to do. And Kate is one of those sort of extraordinary and wonderful people who is not only a wonderful actress, with a great, vast emotional range that is immediately accessible to her, but her fierce intelligence [makes her] a wonderful collaborator. I always knew that was going to be important because of having so many scenes with what inevitably was going to be a young actor.

Toward the end, I think a question I was asking myself and puzzling over was Hanna's end. I can think of a few theories, but why do you think her life ended the way it did?


Why do you think she took her own life?


I guess it was just the weight of everything she had experienced. In a way, I was not at all surprised as I watched the film that that’s what happened.


I think character motivation for actions should be interpreted in different ways. I can tell you my intention, although people can have other ways of seeing it…


At this point, an audience member yells out:
Don’t answer the question!


Don’t answer the question? Okay, I won’t. No, I think you are right.

The Reader opens in select cities today (Wednesday, December 10). In New York, see it at the Paris Theatre.


Watch the trailer.


Read the book.


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