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Interview: Stephen Daldry on “The Reader”

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12092008_thereader1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

This deep in the prestige film season, it’s a safe presumption to say the third feature from Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot”) will likely earn the British director his third consecutive Oscar nod; even if he doesn’t win, there’s no denying his impressive batting average with the Academy. Based on Bernard Schlink’s morally complex 1995 bestseller, “The Reader” raises its (iron) curtain on post-WWII Germany, where an explicit and unusual love affair erupts between tram conductor Hanna (Kate Winslet) and Michael (David Kross), a teenaged scarlet fever survivor half her age. Besides makin’ Teutonic whoopie, the two bond over reading, as Hanna loves to have Michael read her Homer, Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence. Eight years after Hanna mysteriously disappears, law student Michael (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes) next sees his former flame on trial for war crimes, and is torn by his beliefs. Therein lies the crux of both the novel and film: the love-hate relationship and guilt felt by Germans trying to reconcile their feelings for the older war generation. While Daldry was in Los Angeles to promote his latest, I spoke with him by phone about today’s decline in literacy, the children’s film he’d like to make, and why “The Reader” shouldn’t be considered a Holocaust movie.

There are a ton of Third Reich-related films coming out this season, which led critic Stuart Klawans to request “a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Any thoughts?

Wow. I guess the first thing I have to say is that I don’t think this is really about WWII-era Germany, but post-war Germany. It’s much more about the consequences of Germans feeling they’re born guilty, rather than an investigation of the actual actions of the time. “The Reader” is about a country, and in particular one person, trying to live under the shadow of the past as she comes out of a situation with a society tearing itself apart through genocide.

More universally speaking, do you think it’s naturally difficult for us to overcome generational divides since everyone is a direct product of their personal environment and time in history?

I think the best way for me to talk about that is in terms of German context. For that country in particular, it’s been an ongoing process of trying to have some sort of, for want of a better phrase, “truth and reconciliation” with what happened in the past. That country continues to battle with the fact that it was on the fault line of the 20th century, that it [was] the most terrifying place ever created by mankind. It’s a responsibility and an issue that still lives very much within the schools, in the churches, and in the psyche of the German mentality.

12092008_thereader2.jpgWe’re obviously not clairvoyant, but do you predict Germany will ever fully come to terms or reach some sign of closure with this in future?

I don’t know whether “closure” is the right term for it, whether one should actually aim for closure. I’m just thinking on the top of my head of other genocides. Is there closure is Bosnia? Should there be closure in Rwanda? Have we even approached closure on the slavery issue in the West, and should we try to create closure? I don’t think so. In issues of recent ethnic wars and genocides — particularly if you look at Darfur — one of the most remarkable things is our inability to act, still, despite the years of analyzing and re-analyzing what it does to subsequent generations. We still find a massive inability to step in and step up to the plate, when genocide is happening as we speak.

Especially in the later courtroom scenes, Schlink’s book was often compared to his earlier, hardboiled detective stories. In contrast, the film seems more focused on its elegiac, reflective qualities. Could you discuss the decisions you and screenwriter David Hare made to present such weighty material?

The book is written in the first-person, so that always [poses] great challenges. You’re never going to find a means, unless you use a heavy voiceover to get inside the interior monologues, which we decided not to do. The key element was to find an equivalence to the actual writing of a book. We didn’t want our main character to be making a film; that would seem slightly ridiculous. We didn’t really want to start and end with a man who has a typewriter. But the act of telling seemed terribly important. In Mr. Schlink’s book, the actual act of writing, of being able to tell this story after so many years was part of this — I hate to re-use the phrase — but coming to terms with the past. Our equivalence of that is the eventual need to tell the next generation of what happened to his generation, so [Michael] tells his daughter.

There will always be compromises or workarounds in adapting a story to an unlike medium. The book doesn’t feature flashbacks, but the film does, and some critics have suggested that the eroticism is more prominent in your version.

12092008_thereader3.jpgWe think the eroticism is more pronounced in the book, to be frank — the sensual nature of their relationship is expressed really explicitly and continually in the book, so we thought we’d pull back on that as a contrast. We also needed to find, in the trial period, some discursive element of what the broader picture was, and so we dramatized the seminar groups as a means by which the students could actually talk about what was going on and how they felt about it. You can get a little more access to the context of these trials, which are not incredibly well-known outside of Germany — the trials by German law as opposed to the Nuremburg trials. Those were our biggest adaptation issues, and also knowing that at certain points we’d have to switch to Hanna’s point of view, particularly when she was learning to read and write, so you get a sense of the struggle that she’s been through. In the book, those leaps are just made through Michael.

I feel that reading has been somewhat in decline, at least with all the new short attention span distractions we have now. Do you think literacy is being undermined as just a hobby for eggheads?

That’s a good question. Illiteracy is an important issue in America, and I only say that because I spent some time in research for this film with illiteracy agencies in New York. I was quite amazed to find that 80,000 illiterate people currently live in New York City, which seems like a very high figure to me.

What was the last good book you read?

What I’m reading right now is Martin Amis’ “Money,” which is an old book. [laughs] I’m having to spend quite a lot of time on airplanes, so that was one I picked up recently and an airport and thought, “You know, I never read that one. I should really have a look at it.”

Are you particular about the kinds of books you go for?

No, it’s very catholic taste, I would be honest to say. One of the great joys of my job is that you spend a huge amount of time investigating different areas of literature. Sometimes it’s to do research on a potential subject that you might be interested in — which, in the end, you might not make the film — but it’s a fantastic journey that I often go through, having to investigate something that I might one day make. I’ve spent an awful lot of time reading about post-war Germany, and actually spent time in Germany itself, working and living. I am reading a lot of kids’ books and just enjoying those, really. I’m [looking to make] a children’s film, so the one I’ve enjoyed the most recently is “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” Making [a film] for my kids would be great. That’s what I would like to do next.

12092008_thereader4.jpgIf you don’t have another film lined up, does that mean bad news for Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” to which you were attached?

No. You know, I went into the comic book world hugely and vastly, and enjoyed that enormously. I do sincerely hope that that will come back into the fray. I love it, and all of Michael’s work. He’s an amazing writer and he wrote a fantastic script for it himself.

“Billy Elliot” was refitted as a West End musical and recently opened on Broadway to some great reviews. But overall, what are your thoughts about this multitude of movies being adapted into musical extravaganzas? Are playwrights too lazy to write original material?

I don’t know. [After] we made the movie, the idea of turning it into a musical was actually Elton John’s. He came to see the film at Cannes when we first did it. But to be honest, I think that particular story has found its natural home on the stage. That’s where it was always destined to be. For everybody that was involved in making the film, I think that we feel happiest now that it’s found its correct milieu as a musical. I think it’s better than the movie, and most people who worked on it do as well.

[Photos: “The Reader,” Weinstein Co., 2008; Stephen Daldry on the set of 2002’s “The Hours,” Paramount, 2002]

“The Reader” opens in limited release on December 10th.

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