Interviews: Lena Olin and David Hare on The Reader
Mon, 12 Jan 2009 17:22:16
Lena Olin Videos
The Reader is a film about love, death, post-war guilt, veiling truths, and making peace with the past. No small thematic questions, to be sure, and in the hands of a less capable creative team they may have been exploited or distilled into a simplistic, spoon-fed moral message. That is thankfully not the case, due in large part to the participation of director Stephen Daldry and acting talents David Kross, Kate Winslet, and Ralph Fiennes.
While Winslet, who just garnered a deserved Golden Globe award for her performance as war criminal Hanna in the film, and Kross are receiving the lion’s share of press attention, the efforts of supporting actress Lena Olin and screenwriter David Hare are not to be overlooked. Olin takes on two roles in the film, as mother and daughter Holocaust survivors Rose and Ilana Mather, at different temporal points in the story. Hare adapted the story from Bernhard Schlink’s best-selling novel, which has been translated into a wealth of languages and earned book club-maven Oprah Winfrey’s stamp of approval. We spoke with Olin and Hare about making The Reader, and they happily enthused about their filmmaking experiences.
When did you first encounter The Reader?
I read the book years ago. This is a book that has been a huge success in Europe—in Germany, for sure. Maybe 10 years ago I read it. I liked it a lot, was fascinated by it and the complexity and new twist on telling a story about guilt and Germany.
What was your preparation like for the film?
With Stephen [Daldry], who comes from theater, we rehearsed and discussed [the story], and David Hare, the writer—we had the privilege of having him there. I come from theater, so it was a dream climate to work in and to be able to carve [the story] out as carefully as we had the privilege of being able to. I had played another [Holocaust] survivor in a film called [Enemies:] A Love Story; it was Paul Mazursky’s life [mission] to make that movie. He had us stay in New York for two months and meet survivors and talk to people. The devastating thing was that they were still in the camps, in a way. They were walking and working and living in New York, but their hearts and souls were still in the camps. They were so completely destroyed by their experience, really.
How did you feel inhabiting the role of the emotionally-wrought mother in the courtroom, to playing the stronger daughter later on in the film?
She [the daughter] has a beautiful experience. That was so important. I wanted people to have a little bit of a shock when they see her for the first time. The audience expects to see someone who is so colored by her experience. She is an affluent woman in New York. She has a business and she has a life, and I was so intrigued by that.
Do you disentangle the world of theater and the world of film from one another while working in the different mediums?
The processes are somewhat alike, even though on the surface they’re very different. It struck me when we were sitting there that we were all theater people. In that sense, every word was explosive. One little word wrong could tilt the whole thing. There’s something about film that doesn’t exist on-stage, a freshness of the moment. My favorite scenario is when you have people like Ralph [Fiennes] and Stephen—you can prepare so carefully as if you were doing it on-stage. And then the camera comes in and it adds something that you could never prepare for, and you surprise yourself and you surprise your fellow actors. That’s why I love movies so much. That magic is such a rush.
Did you feel any sympathy for Hanna, and did those sympathies shift when inhabiting your character’s role?
I had a hard time feeling sympathy for her when I read the book. I was so shocked, because I didn’t expect that kind of a character at all. That shifted, because I think the way Kate [Winslet] portrays [her], you don’t feel [pure] sympathy for her; she’s in a way a victim herself.
When did you first encounter the novel?
When it was first published. Anthony Minghella had the rights. I never instigate anything, but when I read it I wanted to do it. That never happens to me; I’m always brought things for adaptation because I’m the playwright. Anthony wanted to do it himself and he wouldn’t give it to me. It took him eight years to surrender it to me, and then he became my producer. When he decided to let us [Hare and director Stephen Daldry] do it, then he and Sydney Pollack, who ran Mirage, became our producers, and that was wonderful because the four of us are all filmmakers. The times we had together before Sydney and Anthony died were little utopian times.
How did you go about sorting through all of the “big questions” and distill it into a palatable narrative?
It’s all there in the book. All you’re trying to do is what the book did. The reason the book is so appealing is it works as a fable, a simple story. It also works in this profound way about the metaphor of Germany’s romance with Nazism. Just as the boy has a romance with the older woman, Germany has a romance with Nazism, and the metaphor is all about Germany paying the price of the earlier romance. You’re trying to control the story both as an intimate romantic story, but also its implications. We started discussing those big questions two years ago, and we were still discussing the same big questions when the film was finished. What was so great was I had a book which defies all the Hollywood rules. I had to create a structure which would satisfy the audience even though all the rules were being broken.
When you’re adapting a work, how much fidelity do you have to the source text?
Complete. Not complete in the sense that I follow every word, but the purpose of making the film is to make Bernhard Schlink happy. I want [an author] to be happy with the film. I don’t want them to [think], “Oh, my book’s been travestied.” I think that Bernhard is part of a generation of novelists who grew up with cinema, love cinema, and understand cinema. There have been more good films in the past 25 years than there have been good novels. Novelists now realize that and, basically, from Bernhard Schlink we got nothing but help and respect.
The story toes a line of moral ambiguity. How do you navigate that while writing?
I love that. I don’t have any problem with that. I’m not a finger wagging writer, so the simple puritan stupidities whereby you start saying, “This is right; this is wrong,” don’t interest me at all. Having said that, I do think you do have to contextualize these events. You can’t make a film about post-war Germany in which you omit to mention and pay proper respect to the fact that 78% of European Jews were murdered between the late 1930s and 1945. If you make a film in the shadow of the great crime, you have to define that.
Is there anything about cinema that excites you today, and what are your thoughts on how films are made today?
We’re all bored stiff with knowing in advance what’s going to happen in a movie, and [we’ve] got to start reinventing. I would say almost every good film of the 21st Century has been outside of genre. The films that have excited me are the films that you go [to] and you have absolutely no idea which way they’re going to go, how they’re going to jump. You can’t see them coming, and they come at you from unexpected angles—new ways of storytelling. In terms of the industry, there seems to be no simple way to make a film, and that is tiring as hell. I don’t know why it’s gotten so complicated. Obviously, on our film, the double-tragedy of Anthony dying and Sydney dying—the film paid a terrible price, losing both its producers. So, things became complicated in a way that I’m sure they wouldn’t have if they had been alive. But beyond that, in the ‘80s I directed movies. [At that time,] one could put a year aside and make a film and it would come out. Filmmaking did seem easier then. The reason I did The Reader is [because] I was promised it would come out.