Becomes The Reader, Discovers the Nazi Era and Gains Oscar Buzz
by Brad Balfour
With both Revolutionary Road and The Reader coming into theaters around the world, this has been quite a creative year for 33-year-old British actress Kate Winslet. There’s Oscar®-talk for each film, with Winslet in line for best actress, best supporting actress or both. And ironically, these two films complement each other in that they’re both partially set during the same period – the post-World War Two-era of the mid-1950s.
Winslet already has five Oscar nominations to her credit, two of which made her the youngest actress ever to be nominated twice. She’s also regarded as a champion of showing women’s bodies as they naturally are and has always refused to conform to anyone else’s template for female nudity.
As a novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader offered a forceful look at the seductive effect of the Third Reich as it gained power and the effect it had on the first post-war generation. Once World War II was over, the generation that followed had to reconcile how their parents, uncles and aunts had allowed Hitler and the original Nazis to gain power and draw the nation into its insidious system. As this country begins to cope with this post-Bush era, a slew of Nazi-related films like The Reader, Valkyrie, Good and The Boy In The Striped Pajamas are examining the slippery slope that led to total compliance with a Fascist dictatorship.
Virginal 15 year-old Michael Berg (played by German actor David Kross; the older version is played by Ralph Fiennes) is similarly seduced by Hannah Schmitz (Winslet) and then the relationship is discarded. As he grapples with its effect on him, he also grapples with building a life afterwards – a life that includes becoming a lawyer and dealing with an untested legal system established in the wake of the Nazi regime. As part of his legal studies, Berg witnesses the trial of four female work camp guards who sent countless people to their deaths. When he recognizes one as his former lover, the ever deepening gyre of emotions and ideas spins.
During screenings, this film has produced polarizing responses. When the opportunity arose to speak with Winslet in a near-exclusive interview setting, it produced equally strong emotional reactions on both sides of the table.
I saw both Revolutionary Road and The Reader on the same day. You played two very different people. Was it a different process for each film to adapt or adopt these people?
It’s an extremely different process with any character; every character is different. I would hate to use the old regurgitated emotions of another character and layer them into a new character with a different wig on, or a different costume and a different accent. These two projects were wildly different in terms of how I had to approach them. But both were unbelievably complicated, the most challenging experiences of my working life. I find myself saying again and again: the fact that I got to play both of these characters in my lifetime, let alone in the space of a year – it doesn’t even add up; that doesn’t happen to people. To say that creatively, it’s been the most rewarding two years of my life, would be a massive understatement. I’ve learned so much about myself as an actress. I’ve just honestly learned so much.
Approaching someone like Hannah Schmitz is so different from somebody like April Wheeler [of Revolutionary Road]. The one thing that they both do have in common is that they’re based on novels, and the source material is so rich in each case that they really became my bible in both instances, which doesn’t happen all the time. My copy of The Reader is on my shelf right next to Revolutionary Road and they both don’t really resemble books anymore; they both [look], sort of, like a dog has had a go at them. They’re practically falling apart. [With] Hannah I was very much playing a character, and I remember staring down the barrel of the gun and thinking, “Shit. I really have nothing I can relate to here. There’s nothing of my own experience I can put into this character, at all. So let’s just start right there and hope for the goddamn best.”
It’s such a terrifying position to be in, especially when it’s such an extraordinary book; the material’s so rich. It’s a much loved piece of German literature and so important to Germans. I wanted to get it right. I was the person asked to play Hannah Schmitz. It was an enormous pressure [on me]. “Jesus Christ! Don’t fuck it up, girl.” The thing about playing Hannah that, quite honestly, was the hardest – aside from all the obvious things: the dialect and so on, and the aging, and the illiteracy and the moral illiteracy – the hardest thing was to hold on to my instincts as to who you are.
With something like this – a very, very intricate and difficult love film that is set up against a Holocaust backdrop (though I don’t feel it’s a Holocaust movie at all) – [is that] everyone had an opinion about Hannah Schmitz. She meant something different for everybody. People were alarmingly vocal about that, and everyone would assume you shared the same opinion: “Well obviously she was a Nazi; obviously, she was in control of her action; well, obviously…” The list goes on. I would sometimes think, “Oh my god, that’s not what I thought. Oh shit. Am I wrong? Hang on. No, wait a second. I might not be wrong. I actually might be right, maybe they’re wrong. Does it matter who’s right or wrong?”
All that mattered at the end of the day was that I made her my own, hung on to that, and played the honesty and truthfulness of that, the vulnerability of her and that I understood her. That’s the most important job, I think. I’m really learning more about this, actually. As an actor it’s so key that you get inside the character and you understand them – the good bits and the bad bits. You don’t have to forgive it; you don’t have to sympathize with it. You just have to just have to understand why those things [happen] to that person and why they behave the way that they do. That’s what I was able to do, somehow, with April and with Hannah. And that’s why I’m absolutely not good right now, because of having gone through these two extraordinary experiences. It’s literally blown my mind.
Why do you think Hannah had an affair with this high school boy and why did she keep calling him “kid?”
You’d have to ask Bernhard Schlink why she called him “kid,” quite honestly. You really would. That’s what she calls him the book and I don’t know why that was. That was a little nickname, an affectionate term she had for him. I don’t think she was calling him “kid” and really meaning a child, or baby, or anything like that. Also, Hannah thought he was 17; he’s a 15 year-old boy, but he let her believe he was 17 years old. I just don’t think she really thought about the age. She’s a woman who – because of her illiteracy – has probably never had a close, intimate relationship of this nature. She’s never been able to let anyone in for fear of being found out, and being exposed, and the shame of that she carried in her day-to-day life. Her illiteracy informed everything about her existence.
For her, to feel these things, be touched in that way, be overwhelmed at how much she ended up, ultimately, [made her] emotionally need this boy. I would say that in many ways, she ended up emotionally needing him almost more than he needed her. You don’t expect that to happen. I think she genuinely loved this boy, this young man. And that’s how it always felt to me: he was a young man. It didn’t feel inappropriate even – it didn’t feel salacious, or uncomfortable, or wrong. It somehow always seemed so real, and so pure, and so tender. That’s what it was for me. That’s why I think it didn’t feel uncomfortable or unnatural to do those love scenes with David [Kross], because I always understood them – we both did as characters. It doesn’t matter how nervous you get before shooting scenes like that. At the end of the day as long as you believe in the reason that they’re there and present in the story, then you can embrace it, and really play those moments out and fill them with as much honesty as possible.
What was that process for you to get into her mind? Didn’t you have to do a lot of research since you didn’t have much of a frame of reference for her to begin with?
It was really hard. It was incredibly helpful, and so interesting. But it was a long process, and I felt like I had to cram quite a lot in. I really only had about two months and there was a lot to do with the general preparation of Hannah: the dialect, who she was, her backstory, where she came from. I came at it and thought, “Where do I begin?” “Okay,” I thought, “I could do this thing, I could do this thing, or I could do all of these things. Okay, let’s start with that. I’ll just do all of these things and I’m just going to see which one helps me the most.” Ultimately, everything I did was beneficial.
I had to educate myself a little more about the Holocaust; and I had to educate myself a lot about the role of an SS guard, about which I actually knew very little. And I’m not embarrassed to say that, because I think that’s the case for many people of my generation. Once you see documentary footage of the camp, you read anything on the Holocaust, you can never un-see those things, you can never un-hear, un-read them. I’m still absolutely haunted and traumatized by so much of what I saw during the preparation process. At a certain point I just had to stop, because I thought, “I have what I need now; I get it. I really get it.”
Then what became most beneficial to me was the book. I practically memorized it. Understanding the mind of an illiterate person: that was crucial to me. Have I said this already or am I having déjà vu? Have I talked about the literacy part in it yet? I spent a lot of time with a group in New York City, the Literacy Partners, and they teach men and women to read and write; that was really the most helpful stuff I could possibly have done because I had to understand the level of shame. I had to understand how you live with that lie, how it affects every single area of your life.
I literally sat in on classes with people that were learning how to spell cat, bat, sat and mat. And some of the younger people in that group were 22, 23, and some of the older people were 72 and 73 years old. And they had spent a life being so ashamed that they can’t turn around to anybody and say, can you help me? There was one woman in particular who spent a lot of time with me – she’s in her early 60s and had learned to read and write two years ago – she’s just so proud of herself, I can’t tell you [how much!]. And she was happy to talk about how she survived. So I would say to her, “Hold on a second. How did you get jobs? What kinds of jobs did you do?” “Well Sugar, let me tell you. I was a telephone operator and when you can’t read or write…I have the gift of the gab – you become a good talker. You talk with people a lot. You try to escape from it.” But I would say, “Yes. But how did you get the job in the first place? How did you fill in forms?” “Oh honey, did you ever hear of Ace bandage?” “Yeah” “Well, I would go to the store and I would buy myself an Ace bandage and I would go to my girlfriend and say, “Oh my hand; I can’t hold a pen. Could you fill in that form for me?” And I would tell her what to put, “Yeah, you put that.” That is what I did, for years and years of my life.” “But how many jobs are we talking about?” “We’re talking a lot of jobs and a lot of Ace bandages,” is what she said. She had a son, so I would say, “How would you help him with his homework?”
[She said,] “No. I did not help him with his homework. I employed somebody to do that, because his life and his education was so important to me, but I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let him know that I couldn’t read and write.” I said, “What about bedtime stories?” “No ma’am. I would sing to him songs that I would make up.” I was blown away. And then, [I asked,] “Okay, what would you do in a restaurant?” “I would sit with my menu and my beautiful suit that I had made for myself – which I had perfectly pressed that day myself – and I would look at that menu and say, ‘I’ll take the chicken.'” And I would say, “How did you know they had chicken.” “Oh honey, everybody has chicken.” But I would say, okay, “Salads, whatever…?” “I would say to the gentleman, ‘What vegetables come with that today? Oh, that sounds good. Let me take some of those.”
So my understanding of how good you get at hiding that, the lies that you live through, and the level of control you have to exert on your day-to-day life just to simply understand what happens next is a level of protection. That was the most valuable, eye-opening stuff. You cannot imagine how fascinating that whole process was for me. It literally blew my mind. Walking down the street, I just think, pretend that you can’t read that sign. Could you imagine that, all of those things? Also being told that illiterate people can count, so that when we were putting the process together of how Hannah was actually able to teach herself to read and write, we realized the counting element was quite important. The-lady-with-the-little-dog — one-two-three-four [syncopated]. You see her doing it on her fingers. It helped a lot with how [director] Stephen [Daldry] put this together.
Even when you’re doing these interviews, you seem to be learning something about yourself; about what you did to get there. It sounds like this was a pivotal experience for you.
It was huge. I full-on broke down and thought, “I’m going to have to leave the room.” Don’t get me started on the trial. I am still coming to terms with the whole experience of having played Hannah, I really genuinely am. We wrapped on July 12th, and I sort of walked away like some car crash victim who somehow hadn’t been hurt on the outside, but I felt like I couldn’t speak [about it]. It was truly overwhelming. I really went somewhere. I was in some kind of a trance. And I’m still coming to terms with all of it. I’m so blown away by the movie. There are moments in the film when I actually make a noise. The moment when he goes to the camp, and the camera is on the inside of that barn, and I go [makes guttural sound]. I just can’t watch – and we’re not seeing any bloodshed. It’s just the emptiness and the power of the imagery and the memory and the fact that that was a real camp.
Is Hannah naïve when she’s telling the truth, telling it the way it is? When the Judge and prosecutor ask her questions, she’s the only one saying, “What did you expect me to do? This was my job.” Does Hannah realize she’s taking the brunt of it while the other three female concentration camp guards are lying through their teeth?
No, no… It’s both. She’s naïve; she’s vulnerable; she doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to articulate what’s happened. She doesn’t know about lying on that level. Someone’s asking the question – she’s giving them the answer. So when she says to [the judge], “Well, what would you have done?” she really wants to know. She just thought she was doing her job. In those moments she sitting there, she’s realizing, for the first time, “Oh, so I had a choice then? Okay, so doing my job meant I was committing a crime, is that what it is?” She didn’t know. That is because she was illiterate. When those other women realized very quickly that they can pin this thing on her, you just feel her spiraling out of control. Because all she can do is speak faster, say what she said already and say more of it, again and again. You just see her losing control in this catastrophic way. Of course [there’s] that moment when, “I need to see a sample of your handwriting,” she will take that life sentence [rather than] admit she’s illiterate. God, it’s devastating.
Everything is left up to the audience; no judgment is made in this film. It asks more questions than it even tries to answer. How important is that in the telling of the story to you?
I think it’s crucial. I think it’s absolutely crucial. We didn’t want to give answers. We wanted to ask questions and have an audience walk away questioning everything, and possibly questioning their own morals if at any second they felt sympathy for Hannah Schmitz. I knew it wasn’t my job to make an audience sympathize with her, humanize her or warm her up. I had to make her a person; I had to make her real; and I had to be 100% committed to conveying the honesty of every single emotion in order to give the audience the opportunity to understand her if they wanted to, feel any level of sympathy if they wanted to. The most exciting thing for me, personally, is if the audience feels morally impure, if they feel any degree of sympathy towards her, that’s what is interesting. That means that it is getting some kind of new perspective; it is raising questions for people. I think your observation is absolutely right, and it’s absolutely what we hoped people would feel about the film.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 24, 2008.