Key pages missing from Reader adaptation

There are any number of ways, from exploitation to trivialization to stultifying pretension, to bungle a film about the Holocaust and its repercussions.

Likewise, the pitfalls and miscalculations marking the road from successful book to botched movie are legion. Both cases represent missed opportunities, which is the most charitable thing one can say about “The Reader,” Stephen Daldry’s coolly attractive and dismayingly superficial rendering of German author Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel.

A parable of cowardice and guilt afflicting the first Germans born after the war, “The Reader” is charged by the secret affair between a 15-year-old named Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, a streetcar conductor more than 20 years his senior. It’s 1960 or so, and Germany has successfully masked its wreckage and disgrace beneath a facade of prosperity and complacency.

Hanna (Kate Winslet, who stepped in when a pregnant Nicole Kidman dropped out, halting the production) would seem to hold all the power in the relationship, given her experience and self-sufficiency. After several months she vanishes without a word, leaving Michael stunned, hurt and blaming himself.

He eventually goes on to law school, never quite getting over his first love, and the next time he sees Hanna she’s a defendant in a war-crimes trial. Unable to reconcile his ex-lover with the concentration camp guard described in court, Michael (a poorly chosen David Kross, too old to pass for high-school age and too young to convince as a law student) makes a solitary outing to a former camp in a futile attempt to come to grips with the mass murders he’s coming to realize are his legacy.

In the ensuing years, Michael can neither escape nor solidify his bond with Hanna. As played by the dapper and oh-so-tastefully haunted Ralph Fiennes (still suffering for his cinematic sins as Amon Goeth?), the older Michael numbly goes through the motions of living.

The novel is narrated by the adult Michael with lacerating self-awareness, serving as a stand-in for an entire generation of detached, emotionally stunted and underachieving Germans. The crux of Schlink’s book is the unacknowledged effect of the Holocaust on those who came of age in postwar Germany, and the mysterious malignancy of unearned guilt.

You’ll need a microscope to find that theme in the film, which dishes up all the plot details but utterly fails at conveying either Michael or Hanna’s interior life. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare chose not to use a voice-over, which may have had the effect of distancing us from Michael, but would at least have illuminated his confusion, pain and sense of failure.

For this is Michael’s saga of poisoned dreams and unfulfilled potential, offhand cruelty and sanctioned injustice. Casting a movie star in the role of Hanna, a nondescript worker with a secret, inevitably throws off the balance.

Hare and Daldry made dozens of small but crucial changes to the novel, of which maybe two are improvements. Perhaps it’s pointless, or missing the point, to kvetch, for it’s endemic that a novel’s admirers will be disappointed by its transformation to the screen.

But “The Reader,” with its art-directed soft-core sex and intrusive score and ineffectual dash of highbrow Holocaust honor-paying, is a cowardly dodge. If a German filmmaker had adapted Schlink’s novel with the same careful elusiveness and artful vagueness — particularly in the bruising wake of “Sophie Scholl — The Final Days,” “Downfall” and “The Counterfeiters” — the boos would be deafening.

That the filmmakers are British and American is no reason to be more forgiving.

“The Reader” opens Friday, Dec. 12 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, and Dec. 25 around the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.