Sir David Hare: interview

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Wally Hammond meets Sir David Hare to talk about his latest screen adaptation, which tackles Bernhard Schlink’s post-Holocaust philosophical romance ‘The Reader’

Hare’s in his lair. Sir David, playwright, screenwriter – most recently of Oscar-tipped ‘The Reader’ – theatre and television director, knighted in 1998 for his contribution to the arts, is watching me admire the church-tall windows of his chic work pad in Arts-and-Craftsy Hampstead. It was once the studio of celebrated painter, artist (and suicide) Mark Gertler, he tells me. ‘But don’t worry,’ Hare laughs, ‘he didn’t kill himself here!’

Maybe not. But Gertler, a Jew and Bloomsbury pacifist, did kill himself in June 1939, depressed, partly, by the thought of another world war and the savage encroachment of Hitler and his Jew-hating, supremacist, Holocaust-hungry supporters. Which is kind of appropriate, given that Hare and I are meeting to discuss his well-wrought and brave adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s postwar Germany-set novel about the dark shadows the Holocaust has cast, which Hare has crafted for his friend and collaborator, director Stephen Daldry of ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘The Hours’ fame.

I tell Hare I like his screenplay. It enfolds into its vaguely conventional, if dark, romantic narrative many of the novel’s ideas, evocations and conundrums: about love and deception, secrets and lies, guilt and punishment, transcendent art and bestial behaviour, and – not least – the inescapable plutonium-like poisoning of successive generations following humanity’s basest act, the Final Solution.

The humble screenwriter passes the buck: ‘Well you know, I think Stephen has a salt of genius for handling difficult material. And in a way that makes it accessible. I mean, for goodness’ sake, the last film we made, “The Hours”, was about suicide and lesbianism and took well over $100 million dollars. And at the end of it all, Stephen turned to me and said, “How have we persuaded such a wide audience to look at such matter?” I feel it’s him. I feel he’s got that gift.’

I say, a gift and a sugared pill. Complex as it is, ‘The Reader’ is really a love story, not a probing art movie. And we see Kate Winslet’s bum.

‘It’s a fantastic shot, isn’t it?’ Hare enthuses about Winslet’s no-nonsense disrobement. ‘It’s one of the most powerful shots. Because you believe that she’s a real working-class woman.’

This is Hannah, he’s talking about, the 36-year-old tram clippy Winslet plays in the film who, in 1958 Berlin, takes 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) into her bed on the condition that the bright boy read to her at cigarette time. Homer, Twain, Chekhov – she doesn’t mind. He’s falling in love. She’s exorcising a dark history.

‘Look,’ says Hare, looking into the middle distance, ‘there’s a structural problem with a film of Schlink’s book. The normal arc of an English-language film is towards some form of redemption and forgiveness. No redemption or forgiveness is possible in this film. But beyond that, it’s a love story that uncharacteristically ends with the two people becoming further apart.’

Structural problems Hare is good at, as he confirms. As soon as he’d read the book he knew how to adapt it, he says:
‘I could write a script which had the quality the book had, which was that it was an incredibly simple fable. But like all simple fables, the more you looked at it, the more mysterious it would become.

‘There was a wonderful thing when Sydney Pollack was producing it with Anthony Minghella,’ Hare continues. ‘He said, “The audience will tolerate mystery, if they have clarity.” If you lay out the story and what’s happening, the interpretation can be as mysterious as you want.’

Christ, you could say there are mysteries in ‘The Reader’ – book and film! The book is written by a German, a lawyer and a literary man, about his country’s traumatic past but addressed to its coming generation. A book about the Final Solution where nothing proves final – outside death – and nothing has a solution.

The same, creditably and interestingly, is true about the movie. It’s not as good as Hare describes it to me. Kross is great as the boy; and Ralph Fiennes, in the film’s framing remembrance, is good as the sorrowful 50-year-old lawyer the boy has become. But I hope Winslet doesn’t get an Oscar. She’s honest, brave, deglamorised and self-abnegating but too opaque for top honours and has been better elsewhere.

The film is honourable, soberly directed, thought-provoking and well scripted. But its major quality is its audacity and sheer irresolution. It’s not only a film about unrequited love, it’s a film about unrequited, unanswered everything. Questions, questions. Are the sins of the father visited upon the son? Is law the same as justice? Can innocence or ignorance exculpate guilt or form a defence for inhumanity? Can the pleasures of culture compensate for the boredom, hardships or tragedies of living? And why, as one line has it, has the notion of withheld information become central to the Western literary and, in some ways, filmic tradition?

You won’t find answers to those questions in this film. But it does ask those questions – and, in the end, therein lies the film’s secret, its beauty and its recommendation.

As I talk to Hare about the ending, I tell him that, sadly, we can’t print any of it. ‘Okay,’ he says, now looking at me. ‘Then let me say, the most important scene in this film is with a character who’s been very minor in the rest of it. But I like that idea and that at the end you would understand the impact of the Holocaust. That, for me, was the scene. And Stephen always says that’s the scene that made him want to do the movie. And it’s important.’ Yes, I agree, the scene is important. But, it must be kept a secret. And hopefully remain so, unless and until you, dear reader, should choose to see this challenging but rewarding film.

The Reader’ opens on Jan 2.

Author: Wally Hammond



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