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Bernhard Schlink interviewed by Petra Lorenz – Director The Reader: "I always hoped Kate Winslet would play Hanna Schmitz. And I am impressed by the expressive power and urgency with which David Kross plays"

4832.jpg Bernhard Schlink interviewed by Petra Lorenz – Director The Reader

Has the film turned out the way you envisioned it?

I did not envision it. I have my own mental images, and the film cannot reproduce those. But an author who expects a film to reproduce his own mental images must not sell the rights. He may only expect that an able director will find adequate new images for the story and the subject matter of the book.

Has Stephen Daldry succeeded in doing that?

Together with scriptwriter David Hare, he managed to retain the story and the subject matter of the book. He did not make a film about the holocaust which he could, after all, have attempted by means of flashbacks. Instead, he portrays how the second, i.e. the post-war generation, is implicated in the guilt of the first, i.e. the war generation.

And the images?

The atmosphere of the 1950s, the coexistence of insecurity and confidence in the young Michael Berg and of fearfulness, callousness and lack of understanding in Hanna Schmitz, the intensity and speechlessness of their love, the inner and outer drama of the trial – Stephen Daldry has created powerful images to express all that. And a strong cast.

Who did you always want to see in the role of Hanna Schmitz?

I always hoped Kate Winslet would play Hanna Schmitz. And I am impressed by the expressive power and urgency with which David Kross plays, and also by Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz and Lena Olin.

Were you involved in the filming?

Stephen Daldry, David Hare and I have talked to each other a lot. Sometimes my suggestions were taken up and sometimes they were not – that’s just the way it goes. They were good conversations.

Is the screen adaptation the highlight in the success story of your novel for you? Or have there been other moments, situations and reactions which were more important to you?

The film is an especially visible highlight, as was number 1 on the bestseller list of the “New York Times” many years ago. I am pleased that there is such wide interest in my book which is set into relief by these highlights; it is a book for young and old, women and men, intellectuals and practitioners, people with very different types and levels of education from a wide range of different countries, and it is a book for those who read a lot and those who don’t. Among the highlights are also the letters I receive in which someone writes to me that they don’t usually do much reading but that someone recommended my book to them, that they started to read it and just couldn’t put it down. My mother, who was Swiss and a born democrat, impressed it upon me when I was a child that if you wanted to say something in a democracy you had to say it in such a way that everyone could understand it. Now I know this does not apply to art. But I am pleased that I have written a democratic book as it were.

There has been a boom for some months now of American movies dealing with national socialism or the holocaust such as “Valkyrie”, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, and “Miracle at St. Anna”. What role does “The Reader” play in this wave of films?

Let me emphasise once again: “The Reader” is not a book about national socialism nor the holocaust. It is a book about the relationship between the post-war generation and the war generation, about the implication of the post-war generation in the guilt of the war generation, and about implication in guilt in general. The American writer Joyce Hackett has found a wise answer to the question why American films have been so intensely preoccupied with the Third Reich and the holocaust in recent times: she argues that after the morally ambiguous Bush years, there is a great need for moral problems with a definite answer, for clear and strong images of good and evil. Viewed in that light too, “The Reader”, which deals with moral problems, tensions and conflicts, does not fit into this string of American movies.

Do you think the film is successful in its balancing act between entertainment and confusion which it must, after all, create in viewers?

Viewers keep telling me that the film has gripped and touched them and that it provides much food for thought – I would say this shows that the balancing act is successful.

Were you worried that the misunderstanding of the “good Nazi” would interfere with the reception of the film?

The misunderstandings that exist in relation to the book also exist in relation to the film – that’s only to be expected.

“The Reader” is a very German book. Was it possible for an American Hollywood team to fully grasp it and make a screen adaptation of it?

Stephen Daldry and David Hare are English, the team was American, English and German, and the movie was shot in Germany. Besides, the book is a German, but not exclusively German, book. Love, shame, lies, guilt, implication, justice – these are universal themes.

Is there a particular reason why the film rights were sold to an American motion picture company? Did you ever consider a German film production company and a German director and scriptwriter?

When the film rights were sold more than ten years ago, German cinema was not what it is today. I wanted the movie to reach an international audience.

How was the shooting? You actually appear very briefly in one scene, don’t you?

Very briefly – I hardly recognised myself in the film. I only spent one day at the set – which involved a great deal of waiting around, much patience, the same scene over and over again, subtle modifications, a good atmosphere of intensity and creativity, from the director down to the driver. It was fun.

Which is your favourite scene?

I don’t have a favourite scene, at least not yet. Maybe I will find one when I watch the movie again.

Do you think you might write a film script yourself one day?

I did write one once for a television movie about the 13th of August. But then the director with whom I had collaborated was replaced by one who wanted to write the script himself. I am currently writing the script for the screen adaptation of “Homecoming” with Nico Hofmann as producer and Jan Schütte as director. Although I am very fond of sitting at my desk on my own when I write, I sometimes enjoy cooperating with others – and this cooperation in particular.

For quite some time, Anthony Minghella was keen to direct the film and write the script. Did the fact that Stephen Daldry and David Hare took over significantly change the concept of the film?

Up until his unfortunate death, Anthony Minghella was one of the producers of “The Reader”, and he contributed his conceptual ideas and discussed them with Stephen Daldry and David Hare.

How would you describe the conflict that one experiences when contemplating the character of Hanna?

I would hope it is the conflict that Michael Berg experiences with Hanna Schmitz, the conflict that the post-war generation has experienced with the war generation: affection and horror, being attracted and repelled, sympathy and condemnation.

Is the situation of today’s young generation different from that of the second generation?

The third generation is hardly implicated in the guilt of the war generation anymore and the fourth generation not at all. For this implication requires that one personally knows those who were involved in the crimes as perpetrators, instigators, helpers, onlookers or blind eye turners and that one directly experiences the tension between affection and horror as well as sympathy and condemnation without being able to reconcile it in a satisfactory way.

Will the insights and experiences in connection with the screen adaptation influence your writing?

I suspect that everything I learn and experience influences me.

Any other book and film projects?

I am in the process of writing short stories and am working on the script for “Homecoming”. I am also thinking about a novel – whether it will develop into a project remains to be seen.
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