The holiday season: a time for family, friends, and the Third Reich. Just before Thanksgiving, the Gene Siskel Film Center presented the Chicago premiere of Amos Gitai’s One Day You’ll Understand, in which a middle-aged businessman wonders what role his mother might have played in the deaths of her Jewish parents during the Holocaust. A few theaters have still been showing Mark Herman’s bathetic The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, about two little kids who forge a friendship from opposite sides of the barbed wire. For Christmas, Tom Cruise pulls on jackboots and an eyepatch to play Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi officer who conspired to assassinate Hitler, in Bryan Singer’s actioner Valkyrie; and Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a woman on trial for war crimes she committed as an SS officer at Auschwitz, in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. So when you complain about having to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again, you do so at your peril.
The revelation that Winslet’s character is a war criminal is the centerpiece of The Reader, but surrounding the Holocaust morality play is another story that’s more modestly scaled and, in this age of unashamed romance between older women and younger men, more contemporary. Adapted by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink’s engrossing novel, the movie unfolds from the perspective of Michael Berg (David Kross), who meets Hanna Schmitz in Neustadt in 1958. He’s 15, she’s 36, and though their steamy secret affair lasts for only a few months, at the end of which Hanna disappears, Michael never gets over her. They cross paths again in 1966, when Hanna goes on trial, and their bond endures into the late ’80s, when Michael is middle-aged (and played by Ralph Fiennes) and Hanna is elderly. By that time, their relationship has undergone a painful role reversal, as the controlling, self-assured Hanna becomes the vulnerable one who needs looking after.
The age difference between young Michael and Hanna is so pronounced that their affair takes on a kinky sense of motherhood. From their first meeting to their last, 30 years later, she gruffly refers to him as “kid.” When she happens upon him one rainy day, soaking wet and shaking with hepatitis, Hanna cares for Michael and walks him home. He comes back months later to thank her and accidentally glimpses her half-naked, like a little boy opening the wrong door. One of their most tender scenes together involves her bathing him as if he were a child. Hanna schools Michael in bed, encourages him to read to her, and generally controls the relationship.
But that dynamic is reversed after Michael, as a law student, attends a war crimes trial and learns of Hanna’s dark past. (Spoilers follow.) Questioned by the judge, Hanna displays the moral intelligence of a child: She needed work, so she took a job with the SS; the camp was overcrowded and more prisoners were arriving every day, so she had to send some off to die. When Michael hears that Hanna recruited prisoners to read to her, he realizes that she’s been illiterate all her life — a fact so shameful to her that she refuses to disown an incriminating document she supposedly wrote.
As the years pass and Hanna serves out a long prison term, Michael struggles to forgive her and sends her cassette tapes of himself reading books; comparing them to volumes checked out of the library, she teaches herself to read and on occasion sends him letters in a childish scrawl. When her release date nears, the warden asks Michael to become her guardian. “You’ve grown up, kid,” says Hanna when finally they meet again face-to-face.
A similar role reversal transpires in David Fincher’s bizarre fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) based the film on a jokey F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who’s born elderly and over the course of his life ages into a baby, but they’ve turned it into a gravely beautiful drama about the mysteries of aging and death. Born in 1918, Benjamin is no bigger than an infant yet looks like a withered old man, suffering from deafness, cataracts, and arthritis. With each day his mind grows older and his body younger; by the time he serves in World War II, he’s an able young man of 60. Benjamin reaches equilibrium in his early 40s, but as he advances into old age, his mind grows feeble even as his body gets younger. With its prosthetic make-up and digital magic, the movie only drives home what we already know: that infancy and senescence have much in common. Making his last will and testament, Benjamin writes, “I will go out of this world the same way I came in — alone.”
But in between there’s Daisy, whom Benjamin adores, and the story’s richest, darkest irony is that although she (Cate Blanchett) and he (Brad Pitt) are made for each other, they’re painfully mismatched for all but a brief period in their lives. Though they’re both about 12 years old when they meet, Benjamin looks like he’s in his 70s, and Daisy’s aunt is horrified to find the two playing together under a sheet-draped dining room table. When they’re reunited after the war, Benjamin looks old enough to be her father, and Daisy, who’s become a successful young dancer in New York, is having too much fun with her peers to take him seriously. But then an accident ends her dancing career; when she returns home to their native New Orleans, her physical age finally coincides with Benjamin’s and they enjoy their happiest time together. Naturally it’s the ’60s — the era of the youth explosion — and in one of their most blissful moments they do the twist in the bedroom of their little duplex as the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Like Michael and Hanna, Benjamin and Daisy are joined for life even though they spend only a fraction of it together. And like Hanna with Michael, Benjamin begins his romance with Daisy as the caregiver, only to find himself needing her care at the end of it. After Daisy gives birth to a daughter, Benjamin is forced to confront his oncoming immaturity —“She needs a father, not a playmate,” he says of the little girl — and makes the painful decision to leave his family so Daisy can find another husband. Many years later, after her second husband has died, Daisy receives a call from the nursing home where Benjamin, now a confused and cranky preschooler, has landed. A very old woman herself, she nurses him to the end of his days, dandling him on her knee and finally tending in his crib the man who fathered her now-grown daughter. It’s an eerie denouement, but it’s also extraordinarily touching. As he predicted, Benjamin goes out of the world alone, the same way he came in. But not until the absolute end.