Sunday, March 01, 2009



Kate Winslet
's performance in The Reader has been variously hailed (among other things) for showing the banality of evil, and finding humanity within a troubled character. It is also notable for being "centered" (whatever that really means), which is a way of bringing energy into a character while being fundamentally closed in. It is the power of subtext -- that hidden meaning that never is quite explicitly said.

But I believe there is another level of acting that this style of acting -- also practiced by Ralph Fiennes in the film (and of which Morgan Freeman in almost anything is the absolute master) -- seems almost incapable of. That higher level of acting includes the ability to be messy, open, truly evil, truly scared, truly natural.

The trouble with good acting is that it hides the messy, evil, uncontrollable inhumanity that lies behind evil deeds.

It is clear that Hanna Schmitz, Kate Winslet's character, is not a "good" person. However when you actually list what she is shown to have done, in this film, it is also clear that the full extent of her evil is obfuscated by the style of the film and the acting. I am not advocating being preachy. That is one step less than good acting, good writing, and good directing. I am advocating finding a way to be one step more.


The characterization of Schmitz in the movie seems to describe her as unaware, or as rationalizing her actions, as opposed to finding a center of true evil that allows this behavior. Indeed, the scene in which Fiennes' character declines to publicly admit his affair and defend Schmitz from accusations of leading the camp guards (which she admitted to in order to avoid disclosing her illiteracy), seems designed to reinforce the idea that simple cowardice is ubiquitous and more of a presence in people's lives than things like: prison for life and responsibility for murder.

I was also put off by the affluence at the apartment of the Jewish survivor. It was as if the filmmakers were saying: see, she survived and did very well after all (after all the looting and the murders) and it seems exculpatory.

While Fiennes and Winslet act with grace and that great centered, closed in-style (as much acting style as a portrayal of their characters), the boy, played by David Kross, performs in a much more open style, that I found in some ways more interesting than the major stars'. He has been awarded for his performance, but much less than Winslet.

Without taking away from Winslet's accomplishments, and the quality of the film, what both the film and her performance do lack is the additional, essential, central acknowledgement of evil at the heart of her behavior.

To appreciate my concern with the "centered" style of acting, it is necessary to watch real people unexpectedly ambushed by media in the middle of real catastrophes (or triumphs). The way they express fear and hurt... or relief or joy is very different from the way it is portrayed by most actors.

I would like to see acting that remains accessible while allowing evil, joy, hurt, fear, love to be fully open.

Indeed, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is the best recent example of this next level of acting. His tragic death soon after, however, may indicate the toll on the actor entailed in portraying this kind of truth.

Schmitz' evil was not of the open kind, like the Joker's. Indeed the point of the film is that her evil was the result of circumstance. But the bigger point is that circumstance is not all there is. There must be a predisposition to valuing literacy more than life, valuing order more than saving burning humans, indulging in seduction rather than taking responsibility for someone else's happiness in life. The behavior just seemed controlled. Controlled acting is not sufficient. What is needed to bring this film and this characterization to the next level is -- without being obvious and tiresome -- acting that makes the evil predisposition smoulder.

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