After a distinguished career as a stage director, Stephen Daldry debuted as a film director with Billy Elliot; after that film's rave reviews and warm reception, his follow-up was The Hours, an ambitious adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel that earned Daldry an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Daldry's new film The Reader, adapted from the German novel by Bernhard Schlink, tells the story of Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a lawyer who looks back at his youth (with David Kross playing the young Berg) and his fierce sexual affair with a much older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet) in post-war Germany and the secrets and truths that come to light years after their affair ends.
Speaking with Cinematical in Los Angeles, Daldry talked about nudity, morality and the perils of adaptation: "We didn't want to make a film that reminded us of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader; we wanted to make a film based on Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. ..."
Cinematical: What was the prime source of appeal for you in adapting The Reader?
Stephen Daldry: The subject. I spent a lot of time, as a schoolboy, in Germany, learning German; as an adult, I spent a lot of time in Berlin when I was running the Royal Court Theater, working with a theater in Berlin. So it's a country that I know well, that for all its contradictions and shadows, always fascinates me. And Berlin has always seemed to be on the fault line of the 20th Century. And how that country has always, from generation to generation, and continues to -- (had) to struggle with the fact that they invented Auschwitz ...it's not just interesting, it's also important.
Cinematical: And the question of how civilized try to process uncivilized behavior, and try to process the unprocessable; how do you begin to try to put something like that right, and at the same time, how do you not try to put something like that right?
SD: And how many generations does it take? If you look at the situation, for example, in Rwanda, as the last major big genocide, and if you look at the war that's currently going on in the Congo as the direct consequence of that genocide, one wonders how many more decades will it take? One can argue that the war in the Congo has to do with economics as well, but actually, a huge amount of it ... is a direct consequence of what happened (in Rwanda, and I imagine that war will continue to reverberate and reverberate. So the issue of how a society ... processes the consequences of ethnic genocide of one sort or another, how it does that, seems to be incredibly important.Cinematical: At the same time, when I walked out of The Reader, I thought "I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this ..." primarily because of the challenge of wrapping your head around a big, well-made movie that is about guilt and shame, that is about these two ugly emotions that don't often get explored in film; films explore anger a lot, or happiness, or joy, or revenge, but guilt and shame don't often get looked at, because they're tough to process and they're tough to take. Were you at all aware of that, while you were making The Reader, or do you just follow the template of the book and let the chips fall where they may?
SD: Well, we certainly felt a responsibility to the book; it's a very well-known book, and certainly in Germany, one of the most-read contemporary books ever written. So, we didn't want to make a film that reminded us of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader; we wanted to make a film based on Bernhard Schlink's The Reader; the issue of (the emotional tone of the film) ... I think you're right; I don't think it had occurred to me that it was difficult cinematically; maybe you're right: The moral of the movie is about shame.
Cinematical: The one film that I kept thinking about was actually The Night Porter, a film about a sexually charged relationship, about the consequences of the Nazi regime, after the war -- but between two adults who are fully aware of each other's role in the war; was that something you looked at?
SD: I only looked at The Night Porter to make sure our film had nothing to do with it. So there was no reference to The Night Porter at all in sexual relationship between the two protagonists (in The Reader) ... and certainly from my point of view, it's ... (The Night Porter's) not a film I could seriously hold up as anything other than to be avoided at all costs.
Cinematical: In the sense that you don't like The Night Porter?
SD: I think the subject matter is entirely dodgy.
Cinematical: Which is possibly one of the best British phrases ever invented. ... I was talking to someone about the film, and there was a whole discussion of why David Kross's character, at one point, could change the course of Kate Winslet's fate and he doesn't ... and wrapping one's head around that; in an American film, you would expect the big stirring speech up to the front of the court: "Your honor, I have evidence that could change. .." And it's not in the book, and it's not in the film, but was there ever anyone who said "We need a bit more resolution; we need something a bit more dramatic in this scene ..."?
Cinematical: Thank God.
SD: (Laughs) No, to be frank.
Cinematical: There's also the fact that, thinking about David Kross's character's relationship with Kate Winslet's character ... at the time, he didn't know what he was doing was wrong ... and, how you could possibly extend that to apply to many of the German people during the war, that David Kross, like the German people, unconsciously enters a situation where he doesn't know how wrong it actually is until after the fact. Is that a component in his later ...
SD: Not in my head, no. Much more for (the character played by) David Kross -- and this is true for Bernhard Schlink -- it was living in a society where the past is not discussed. The shroud of secrecy that came across Germany after the (Second World) War, when Germany essentially started again ... that the past was to be buried, and this new country, the Federal Republic had to come forward, injected with all this extraordinary amount of money from the Marshall Plan, this new frontier state against the beginning of the Cold War. ... It took seventeen years before that society started going, looking and thinking "What did happen here? What actually (happened here)?" And so David Kross, the character of young Michael Berg, is an innocent who loves, lives and learns in a society where almost everybody around him is compromised. And then he has a love affair, which is the most dramatic context that I think Bernhard Schlink could come up with, about a love that is deeply and profoundly compromised. And it raises the questions" Is that love invalidated? Is it poisoned? And for him, it is; this boy is poisoned but this love; he can find no value in it ... subsequently, though.
Cinematical: And speaking of that relationship, and the way you shoot it, not to be flip, but I think I've seen more of David Kross's skin than my own, because I don't own that many mirrors; you weren't shy about shooting any of that stuff. Was that something you said from the get-go? "Okay, this is a film about a sexual relationship, we're going to shoot it like grown-ups? No traditional L-shaped Hollywood sheet that leaves the man's chest exposed but covers the woman's?"
SD: Well, I certainly wasn't going to have a situation where the woman was going to be exposed and the man wasn't ... I have to say I do find it a particularly American question ... there's a British TV series called Skins, have you seen it?
Cinematical: I believe Dev Patel from Slumdog Milionaire is in it ...
SD: If you think there's a lot of flesh in (The Reader), you should see that TV show. ...
Cinematical: But the British are more grown-up about things like that; Eurpoeans are more grown up about things like that. Was there ever a concern that you were making a film that wouldn't fly in America?
SD: No, I was making a film in Germany.
Cinematical: So, in other words, you have the best of both worlds, in that you're able to make a film with an European sensibility, but with large enough stars that you can sell it in America -- or try to.
SD: Or try to. But my responsibility is not to the market, it's to the story.
Cinematical: Do you find that when you go from working on something for the stage to working on something for the screen that you have to re-frame your mind ...
SD: Not at all. There are crossover elements to both disciplines -- and there's quite a few crossover elements to those disciplines. And the actual practicality of turning up in a rehearsal room, and turning up in ... actually, let me say this a different way: I think that on the whole, when you rehearse a film, it's not that dissimilar from rehearsing for a play.
Cinematical: You're working with actors, you're getting the language of the text right ...
SD: ... and the staging, and you're creating rhythm within scenes; both the same for both mediums. Both of them revolve around the instance of the scene. It's not rocket science. The difference is scheduling. It's hard -- people can do it, and people do do it, but I can always see it; you can not worry about the rhythm when you're rehearsing a scene for film, and you can try to create that rhythm in the edit room, and you see a lot of films with that imposed rhythm -- but I find it much better when you're editing to a rhythm that was on the day, rather than working against the rhythm.
Cinematical: Do you find yourself watching stage-to-screen adaptations and critiquing them from your fairly privileged perspective?
SD: I do, but I would not like to comment on any I've seen.
Cinematical: Working with Ms. Winslet, she has this evolved persona of being fearsomely prepared and yet remarkably affable; did that turn out to be the case?
SD: Totally. We spent a lot of time preparing. A lot of time rehearsing. She does an amazing amount of homework -- as do I -- and we did a lot of homework together. The great advantage of doing your homework is that you can be much freer on the day, because you can adapt and change and invent, knowing what your intentions are. So Kate becomes incredibly free; she's not a slave to her prep at all; it is just a bouncing wall for her. But I'm a huge fan of it; I think if we taught David Kross anything in this process, it's the importance of preparation.
Cinematical: You create this mass of preparation in your head and yo have this better sense of where you can go to in the moment?
SD: Well, you know where you're going before you go in, but it means you can change the idea quicker; you're more adaptable. And adaptability is the key. You can have ideas on the day, and you don't get panicked about them; you're not sitting there, scratching your head, saying 'Well, what are we going to do today?"
Cinematical: And Mr. Fiennes -- working with him?
SD: Well, Ralph is a friend -- an old friend -- that David Hare and I know very well. Again, a great collaborator. And what I love about Ralph is that he's very specific ... (in terms of) his actions and intentions as an actor.
Cinematical: And of course, David Hare is adapting; he was the first logical choice to do the adaptation?
SD: I didn't think of anyone else ... 'moral quagmires' being something that I think David would be very interested in.
Cinematical: There's a great moment where Ms. Winslet's character says "I heard there were jobs." And the question of how someone becomes a prison guard for the SS is explained by "I heard there were jobs." Is that still relevant? The idea that lack of economic choice can lead to bad political choices?
SD: Well, one can generalize, but maybe one should be more specific in the first instance. Just to be historically accurate about it, at that point in the war, when she did go from (working for) Siemens to (being) a guard in Auschwitz, a couple of historical points are worth noting. First of all, there was a transition of economics at the Auschwitz industrial complex; the SS started demanding that the companies themselves start providing guards and they were under the pay (of the companies); so, in the film, it is unknown if she was still under the pay of Siemens or whether she transferred to the pay of the SS Auxiliary; unknown. But it could be that she was still paid by Siemens. Secondly, at this point in the war, a lot of people were transferred without necessarily being where they were going; certainly, they weren't being told, "Oh, you're going to go to a death camp. ...", because the knowledge of death camps for a woman, certainly for a woman in Hannah's (Winslet's character) position, would be minimal. A guard at a concentration camp, she'd know what that was, but what that meant, I don't know whether she actually understands at the point of "Oh, I'll go be a guard; there are prisoners, and I'll go and guard the prisoners." But I think the bigger issue that the film is trying to address, and the book is trying to address, is moral illiteracy; so, yes, "I went to be a guard." "I went to join the Army; I didn't know I was going to end up abusing prisoners in Iraq. ..." Do you know what I mean? There's all sorts of reasons why people end up in the most terrible places. I wonder, when the war trials begin -- and no doubt, the Iraq war trials will begin, at certain points -- I don't know what will happen to the guards at Guantanamo Bay.
Cinematical: Do you think that moral illiteracy is still with us?
For more on The Reader, which expands to more theaters next month, see our review.