Guilt. Judgment. Love. Sexuality. Morality. Betrayal. These are the issues and emotions at the heart of THE READER (2008), newly released on DVD. Kate Winslet won a well-deserved Oscar as Hanna Schmitz, a former concentration camp guard who harbors her own shameful secret. David Kross plays the teen who has an affair with her and holds her fate in his hands, while Ralph Fiennes plays him as an adult, forced to deal with that fate. In a dual role, Lena Olin makes an impression as the mother and daughter of one of Schmitz’s prisoners.
Based on the bestseller by Bernard Schlink, David Hare’s screenplay raises numerous questions, yet thankfully doesn’t supply any easy, pat answers. Daldry’s direction is sure and never showy, and the film grows richer on repeated viewings. Much of that richness is thanks in no small part to Nico Muhly’s beautifully unsettling score, my favorite of 2008.
Publicity for the film was heightened by the untimely deaths of lead producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. In addition, producer Scott Rudin removed his name from the film due to disputes with Harvey and Bob Weinstein over rushing to finish it before year’s end. But that rush paid off.
The Weinsteins previewed the film for numerous Jewish organizations and with the buzz over Winslet’s performance in particular, the film garnered a surprising (yet well-deserved) five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Though Muhly’s score was wrongly overlooked, it remains crucial to the emotional crux of the film.
Born in 1981, Muhly is a relative newcomer in films, having composed his first score in 2007 for the indie horror flick JOSHUA. Muhly has already made quite a name for himself in classical circles, and has worked extensively as an editor, keyboardist and conductor for Philip Glass.
“I’ve worked for Philip Glass since I was in college, and worked a lot on his score for THE HOURS,” said Muhly in a Variety interview. “So I got to know Stephen Daldry then, and later Scott Rudin when Philip was doing the score for NOTES ON A SCANDAL. And they saw that I was very good working under pressure, and I think that got me invited to do THE READER myself.”
“It’s a score that wants to remain morally ambiguous,” said Muhly in another Variety interview.“So I tried to use a sort of minimal amount of material.” The score relies on a repeating piano and string motif. “There were such strong moral connotations to the music, the difference between one note and another note could have completely changed…the emotional impact,” Muhly said. “It really challenged me to not make decisions based on, ‘Oh, I like the way that sounds,’ but really try to think about what the consequences of having heard these notes and these rhythms in that order might be.”
Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer mistakenly called the score “Philip Glass-lite,” yet Muhly moves beyond Glass’ trademark repetition to create a lush, unsettling harmonic bed for the two lovers to lie on. “I almost never resolve a cue,” he said. “They all hang.
DVD extras include 11 deleted and extended scenes, a lengthy making-of feature, a discussion between Daldry and young Kross, a poignant look at production designer Brigitte Broch who returned to Germany for the first time in 40 years to work on the film, and a delightful session in the makeup chair as we watch the beautiful Winslet age into the 66-year-old Schmitz.
But readers of this blog will probably be most interested in the all-too-brief 4-minute featurette dedicated to Muhly’s score. (If the video is no longer playing in the sidebar, you may view it on my YouTube account.) It is interesting to hear Muhly discuss his work, but I wish the clip had been longer. Thankfully, Muhly’s music accompanies much of the other extras.
Muhly is set to score Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET later this year. But with such a successful classical career, how much or how little Muhly plans on working in Hollywood remains to be seen. Even with only two film scores under his belt, Muhly has carved out a niche as one of the freshest voices in film scoring today. Let’s hope we hear more from this talented composer in the future.