Body Politic: Kate Winslet in The Reader

Ok, it’s always a big deal when Kate Winslet gets naked. In the past month alone, there’s been a media frenzy about her Vanity Fair photoshoot along with an accompanying photoshop controversy. Winslet has long been a body image heroine to a lot of women, and she’s pretty fearless about showing up naked on screen (an observation that Halle Berry also recently made, touching off some more media commotion). In The Reader, Winslet plays Hanna, a former guard at Auschwitz, who becomes romantically involved with a young man in post-War Germany. The subject matter of the film alone has touched off a fair bit of speculation - a romantic drama about a concentration camp guard? - but there’s already a pretty furious debate brewing about her sex scenes, too.

A New York Post reviewer is calling the scenes “gratuitous” and Winslet’s character a “pedophile Nazi hottie.” The Daily Mail, on the other hand, defends her nudity as "integral to the story" (and they're quick to reassure you that Winslet did not use a body double, just in case you were wondering). A Fox News reviewer calls The Reader "sexy material," noting that, "In a dry season The Reader benefits not just a little from Winslet’s cougar-esque Hanna’s many naked tanglings.” And on Monday, art critic Charlie Finch criticized Winslet’s nudity and the film’s politics, telling Page Six, “What is especially repellent is the use of Kate Winslet’s nubile body to create sympathy for a repellent character, whose triumph over illiteracy somehow mitigates unspeakable crimes which are never actually depicted on-screen.”

So, what we’ve got here could be a shameless and exploitative grab at an Oscar, OR a brave and integral part of a multi-faceted character portrayal, OR a shameful and immoral choice, OR a smokin’ hot performance. And only a handful of reviews have actually hit the newstands and the Web. We’re definitely going to hear more about this.

How are we supposed to read and understand Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader? It seems to me that there are a lot of ways that her body is reflecting the political dimensions and desires of the film, its critics and its viewers.

I think this is already evolving into a pretty fascinating dialogue.

by Tammy Oler
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Tammy Oler has been contributing to Bitch for over a decade. Her writing about pop culture and fandom has appeared in Slate, Ozy, Vulture, and Geek, among others.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

This is my first time

This is my first time reading a b**** article, so I thought it was interesting that nothing I read in the article struck me as particularly feminist! Although that was sort of expectable I guess since you were summarizing the controversy rather than advocating for one point of view...

I think Charlie Finch, the guy who started the whole bashing of the film for trivializing the holocaust, was just being a bombastic fool! The focus of the movie was on the relationship between Kate Winslet and the younger boy, and the holocaust served as a backdrop, and it's like Charlie Finch was unable or unwilling to appreciate this. It's sort of a love story, in a way.

The people who rant about the movie glamorizing pedophilia are a bit wrong, methinks, because the story deals honestly with the pain that the exploitation caused (not to mention the fact that the actors used were all 18 or over).

Interestingly, I think Kate Winslet went too far in defending the relationship portrayed in the movie, because I read in an interview that she said that there was nothing improper about it at all and how in her real life she was in a relationship when she was 15 with someone 13 years older and it was perfectly fine. I think that perspective goes even further than the movie wanted to go, because even the movie seems to be making the point that damage is being done. However, I think Winslet is right to defend the film because I think this controversy is just a bunch of critics being punks.

Ultimately, yes, the focus on the relationship is warranted by the plot--it is in fact the main focus of the movie, not merely "integral" to the story, it is the story. Whether that warrants including explicit detail is a question of taste and the emotional impact the content has or has the potential to have, and I probably shouldn't weigh in on that one too much before I see the film, although in other similar films explicit detail often heightens the impact of the movie as a whole.

I read the book

It's obvious to me that none of those reviewers (even the positive one) have ever read Bernhard Schlink's original novel. It's written in the perspective of Michael. There is nothing sexually perverted about Hanna, and the readers can only assume that this type of relationship wasn't illegal in Germany at that time.

I am seeing the movie tomorrow hopefully (at my town's local arthouse theater, natch), but I don't see why people are making a huge deal out of Winslet's nudity. It IS essential to the story because it's about Michael and Hanna's affair. It's about a boy coming to age, becoming a man essentially, and exploring his own sexuality through this relationship. She is a dominant person in his life and ultimately molds him into who he will become.

Kate Winslet takes unique roles (much like Johnny Depp) and the role of Hanna is challenging because we feel sympathy for her, she's very important to Michael, so we feel that she is important to us, the readers. We feel even more sympathy for her when we discover her secret: that she is illiterate. Ultimately the novel asks the readers to question ourselves and if we can ultimately move on from past horrors. It also asks us to determine if Hanna is a bad person because of her past occupation as an Auschwitz guard and what she did there. She's an amazingly complex character, whom we never fully understand because the novel is told by Michael.

Anyways, going back to the nudity, I feel the film would have been seriously lacking if the audience saw neither of the characters nude, because one of the most dynamic aspects of their relationship is their openness with one another, each being vulnerable to one another, (almost) entirely opening themselves to one another. Of course, Hanna doesn't fully open her past to Michael, making her more complex than we originally thought. I honestly and sincerely don't believe that Hanna is a pedophile either. Their relationship is more complex than that, and besides, pedophiles are predatory and Hanna is anything but.

When I first heard the book was being adapted into a movie, I will admit, I groaned. Hollywood always seems to ruin the most precious things, and books above all else. Books to me are sacred, especially foreign literature (The Reader being by a German author), but after I heard more about it and saw that Winslet had been cast as Hanna, I knew it would be an incredible picture and that Winslet would be absolutely perfect in that role.

At any rate, if she doesn't win for Best Actess, I will lose faith in the Academy. She deserved it with Sense and Sensibility (and with all of her other roles). She's an incredible actress who is incredibly sexy not only because she's gorgeous, but intelligent, talented, and not afraid of nudity, not ashamed of her body, and is quite proud of it. She's also a wife and a mother and manages to be brilliant at the same time.

I thought the film was

I thought the film was great! Most people don't know this, but there were 150,000 people charged with crimes after the war and only about 3000 were ever conflicted. In a few years, their life will be over for the most part but we should never forget what happen then.
I don't think much has changed in 60 years, just different people doing the killing and no one is doing anything about it or they just look the other way. So, we are no different now than what they done back than, we all are looking away.

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