Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Reader


Review Date: 1-9-09
Release Date: 1-9-09
Runtime: 124 minutes
Period: 1958 – 1995, Germany
Costume Designer: Ann Roth
Associate Costume Designer: Donna Maloney

I know, I know.  It’s another Ann Roth-designed movie.  And yes, it’s another WWII/Nazi-themed movie.  But look – this is not a movie about fancy, dazzling costumes, and it takes place well after the war (in 1958 up to 1995), so it is different.  The film, and its costumes (and in some scenes its lack thereof), is certainly something worth discussing.  It was a very satisfying movie to watch, and you won’t be wasting two hours of your life; believe me.

The Reader is the story of the relationship between Michael Berg (David Kross, as the younger, and Ralph Fiennes as the older) and Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet).  Hanna comes upon young Berg vomiting in the foyer of her building.  She cleans up the vomit, wipes his face, and makes sure he gets home safely – a kind act, considering it turns out he has scarlet fever.

After he recovers, young Berg brings flowers to Hanna to thank her.  Thus begins an unlikely affair between younger man and older (36, haha not that old, cough cough) woman.  Their affair involves lots of sex education, and lots of reading.  Specifically, Hanna likes young Berg to read to her.  He reads The Odyssey; he reads Chekhov.  She is emotionally involved in these stories, crying and laughing along with them.  He even gets a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which draws her initial shocked admonishment, and subsequent, “Keep reading…”

Young Berg continues to live his summer of love in the shadows, never telling anyone exactly where he’s been.  He reads and makes love with Hanna and frolics in the lake with other kids his age.  He always slips away in the end, however, back to Hanna’s arms.

Young Berg sells his stamp collection to pay for a romantic country getaway with Hanna.  They ride their bicycles to an old town with an open street café (where Hanna is mistaken for his mother), and a church filled with angelic singing children.

When school starts again, there is a beautiful new girl in class, Sophie.  Young Berg is taken with her, but still carrying on with Hanna.  He confronts Hanna about the relationship being solely on her terms, and she slaps him!  Followed by, she scrubs his naked (full-frontal-naked) body in the bathtub.  Followed by, y’know.

Hanna has been recognized for promotion in her job as a streetcar conductor, and leaves abruptly.  Young Berg goes to her house to see her, but she is long gone.  The end of their affair.

Cut to: 1966.  Young Berg is in law school.  His professor takes the students to a trial where Nazi prison guards are to be held accountable for their actions.  Side note: having done some research – these trials could have been held in Frankfurt, Germany, as the “Second Auschwitz Trial” – though the trial in the film is fictional, it is likely that this “Second Auschwitz Trial” is the trial used as a model for the proceedings.  The students take their seats in the observing loft, and the defendants come out.  One of them is Hanna Schmitz.  Young Berg is horrified.

Hanna and a handful of female prison guards are charged with some heinous crimes, and none of the other women on trial gives a truthful accounting of events, except Hanna.  The judge asks for a handwriting sample, to corroborate her part in writing a report exonerating the guards, and Hanna refuses (due to her pride, and her own sense of guilt, we presume).  Young Berg puts it together (via flashbacks) that Hanna is illiterate.  He now holds the key to her potential reduced sentencing, and yet he does not come forward to the court with the information.  Hanna is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Cut to: the 1970s.  Older Berg has married and had a child.  The marriage dissolves, and he goes back to his childhood home.  He retrieves all of the books from his youth, and sets out on a project to record them all onto audiotapes.  He sends these “books-on-tape” to Hanna in prison.  His guilt about not providing the evidence that could lessen her sentence, coupled with the divorce, compel him to embark on this Herculean task of reading every book in his collection into a tape recorder for Hanna.

Cut to: the 1980s.  With the help of his audio books, Hanna is teaching herself to read and write.  She parses out letters to the older Berg: Send more romance.  He never writes back.  Then comes 1988, when Hanna is eligible for release.  The prison calls the older Berg, asking him for his help.  Evidently, he is the only correspondent Hanna has ever had.  She will need his help to assimilate back into society.  Berg coldly hangs up the phone.  What will he do?

Older Berg goes to the prison where Hanna is held.  He meets her in the cafeteria, and they have an awkward reunion.  He has made arrangements for her – a job with a tailor, a small apartment… but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t want anything to do with her.  He asks her what she’s learned from her time in prison – she tells him that she’s learned to read.  That’s not exactly what he meant.  She seems unrepentant.  He leaves, disappointed.

A few days later, older Berg comes to the prison again to collect her.  In the meantime, Hanna has killed herself.  She leaves a will that instructs older Berg to give all of her money (kept in a tea-tin) and some Deutschmarks in the bank to the (sole?) surviving prisoner formerly in her care.

Older Berg travels to New York to deliver the money, and winds up talking to the survivor, Ms. Mather, for some time about the nature of guilt. They agree to donate the money to a literacy fund.

Cut to: 1995.  Older Berg takes his twenty-something daughter to the small village in Germany where he once took the bicycle vacation with Hanna.  There, at the church, he uncovers a granite headstone with Hanna’s name on it.  He begins to tell his daughter the story… The end.

This movie jumps around a lot in the storytelling, so I have kind of paraphrased the above in terms of its chronology, but the gist of the movie is there.  Thematically, we see many of the same elements as we did in Good.  However, in this film, those elements are framed within a love story, and really I would qualify this movie as a romance, with themes of guilt.  I would qualify Good as a movie about guilt, period.  So it’s interesting to compare the two, though they are totally different films altogether.

It is a formidable task for a filmmaker to ask an audience to feel sorry for a Nazi. Kate Winslet’s performance is so stoic and powerful; she never asks us to feel sorry for her – and that is the beauty of the film.  Side note: Kate is nominated in the “supporting actress” category for this film, which is totally absurd.  The only reason she is nominated in a supporting category for this film is because she is a presumptive Academy Award nominee for best actress in a leading role for Revolutionary Road.  And because an actor can’t be nominated twice in the same category in the same year (though other filmmakers can – directors, costume designers, sound mixers, etc) it seems absurd to relegate her performance in The Reader to the category of “supporting”, when, in fact, she carries the movie.  I suspect she was probably number-one on the call sheet, meaning that she had the most shooting days, had the biggest marquee value and was paid the most.   Usually, being number-one on the call sheet means that you are the “lead” actor.  Ooooh, if I could only get my hands on a call sheet from The Reader! Then I could know for sure.  I just think that this is a leading role that deserves recognition as such.  Kate Winslet is very, very, VERY good in this film.

The other outstanding performance in this film goes to Young Berg.  WOW.  Here is a kid who was seventeen years old when shooting began.  Born on the fourth of July, 1990, in Germany, Kross was not old enough to perform the love scenes required in the film when shooting began.  Production was actually put on hold so that he could turn eighteen, and beginning on his birthday, the crew shot the nude scenes, I am told, for only two days.  Why did they have to wait until he was eighteen?  In Germany, the legal age of consent is fourteen (sixteen in some cases) – and they were shooting in Germany.  Why couldn’t they have just shot this stuff when he was seventeen?  Because, in America, that content (nudity, sexuality) would have been viewed as child pornography under the law.  What a difference a day makes!  Kross’ performance as the wounded youth, infatuated with an older woman, is a breath of fresh air.  You really believe his emotion, his angst, his torment.  He’s wonderful.

Ralph Fiennes is effectively cold and clammy in this film – here is a man that is consumed by his guilt, and unable to share his burden with anyone.  I have always admired Fiennes’ work for his ability to convey emotion as a single drop of ink in a bottle of water.  Slowly, creepingly, all of the water turns purple.  That is how Ralph Fiennes works, showing his emotion.  He is perfect for this part, and turns in a very elegant performance of a rather pathetic man.  Loved it.

As for the costumes – it is very interesting.  There is so much nudity in this film that we get the joy of seeing all of the layers of the costumes as they are stripped off.  All of the fine points are period-correct, and it is delightful to see the attention to detail here.  These costumes seem to be very ordinary, but take on deeper meaning as we look more closely.

Hanna is, for the first sixty percent of the film, always in some kind of dark blue, or variety of dark color thereof.  Her streetcar conductor’s uniform is dark blue (Note: Donna Maloney tells me it is charcoal grey, but on my TV, it was navy blue!!), her housedresses are some variation of dark blue, even the dress she wears on the bicycle vacation has a dark blue pattern.  There is always a measure of control and sadness to these garments.  Initially they make her look slightly schlumpy (lack of self-esteem) and they make her look like she is part of the machine (uniform).  As she falls more in love with Berg, her clothing takes more shape (as in, the dress she wears in the countryside).

When Hanna gets a promotion and leaves her home, she wears a green print dress with a full skirt – something we’ve never seen her in up to this point, in terms of its color.  It’s a break for Hanna – a new opportunity.  Things are changing for her.

The next time we see Hanna is in the courtroom.  During the trial, it occurred to me that Hanna (for the most part) wears black and grey, with touches or flecks of white.  But that’s it – no color.  Many of her co-defendants also wear costumes heavy in the black/grey/white elements, as well.  The witnesses brought to trial – the elder Ms. Mather, and the younger Ms. Mather – were also engaged in the color scheme.  The elder Ms. Mather wearing a black, grey and white tweed suit, and the younger Ms. Mather wearing a stark black belted dress.  The judges on the panel all wear black robes.

This trial scene is gruesome.  The use of black, white and grey serves to emphasize the issues at hand.  What is the truth?  Is the truth black and white in this case?  Are their shades of grey?  Maybe I’m making it all up, but I have an email in to Donna Maloney to find out.

Hanna goes to prison, and here’s where the costumes get loose and fast.  There aren’t really any discernable prison uniforms, per se.  I am not an expert in prison uniforms, or in the correctional system of post-war Germany, but it is interesting to see the prisoners in what looks like bits and pieces of civilian clothing.  Perhaps the depressed economic situation in Germany didn’t provide for uniforms for prisoners; I don’t know.  In any case, Hanna is back in blue colors at this point, imprisoned not only by the system, but by herself, as well.

When Older Berg comes to meet her at the prison, she wears a lavender cardigan sweater and floral print dress or blouse (hard to tell).  It seems as though this shift in color hints at her impending freedom, and sense of hopefulness.  She has thoroughly aged at this point (makeup, hair, etc) and the girlish colors seems to echo her memory of better, more hopeful times.

Michael Berg’s progression is similarly interesting.  We first meet him when he is soaked to the bone – in the rain with no umbrella – and vomiting in Hanna’s foyer.  His clothing is completely waterlogged, his hair plastered to his forehead – he is a mess.  He recovers in bed, wearing pajamas and a robe – nothing out of the ordinary here.  When he visits Hanna for the first time after his illness, he wears a beautiful ivory v-neck tennis-like sweater that looks like it may have been hand-knit.  It is innocent and boyish.  When he waits for her later, kind of lurking, wanting her, he wears a blue button-up shirt, and a tan windbreaker-type jacket.  In my opinion, this becomes significant later.

As their affair gets going, his clothing doesn’t change all that much – on one day he wears a sweater vest, and as the weather gets warmer, shorts.  On their bicycle trip, he wears a blue short-sleeved button-up shirt and tan shorts.  We see him strip down to his underwear – authentic, take my word for it.  Even the swimsuit that he wears at the lake is perfect – in fact, all of the swimsuits that the kids wear at the lake are exquisite.  These details make the film come alive; they make it feel real, authentic and accessible.

When young Berg goes to Hanna’s house, only to find her gone, he wears a dark colored shirt – it reflects his emotional shift.  Later, he goes to the pier at the lake, strips down to his birthday suit, neatly folds his clothing, lays it on the pier, and jumps in the water.  I read this as something like a Mikvah, or ritual cleansing bath.  Their affair was over, and he was washing it away.

When Young Berg goes to law school, his colors shift considerably.  He wears darker earth tones.  The year is 1966, and we see the period in his skinny pants, longer hair and G-man-like trench coat.  He has a great brown sweater in his law school sequence as well.  So beautiful are these knits that is makes me wonder where they came from.  Stay tuned.

During the time of the trial in the film, there is a sequence where young Berg visits a concentration camp.  This sequence seems kind of out of place, as it is shot in mostly blue and black.  Meaning: a fantasy?  A dream?  A flight of the imagination?  Or did he really go there?  It’s hard to tell, as the sequence has no external context or consequence.  It is also hard to believe that a person in 1966 would be able to enter an old concentration camp facility, walk around, and have the place be untouched – piles of shoes still in place, ovens still intact, etc.  Most of those camps were unceremoniously burned to the ground or destroyed, with (occasionally) new buildings erected to serve as museums (with the exception of Auschwitz, which would have been a museum in 1966 anyway, and inaccessible to young Berg in the way the movie portrays it).  So, I am still having trouble figuring this part out.  Help me if you have any ideas.  I just felt that this sequence was a tad clunky, and while visually interesting, didn’t resonate much, except for the idea that he was visiting his own guilt for having slept with a Nazi.  Was it intended to be representative of German guilt?  Or perhaps his singular, personal guilt?  I didn’t think it fit very well, but it was well-shot.

Older Berg is a similarly constructed character to younger Berg, though considerably more uptight.  He is a lawyer now, and the costume department did a good job of describing this guy visually – long-mired in bureaucracy, out-of-touch with his liberated, creative side.  He dresses as he’s expected to; it’s stuffy, conservative, unremarkable.  When he goes to meet Hanna at the prison, however, watch closely what he wears: blue button-up shirt, tan coat.  His costume when he finally sees her again is the exact mirror for the costume he wears when they begin their affair.  It is a great device, probably unnoticed by most people watching the movie, but it speaks to his heart.  This is a woman he loved, and his costumes don’t forget it.

Leno Olin is simply fabulous in this film.  Older Berg comes to see her at the end of the film, and is welcomed into her (presumably) 5th Avenue penthouse.  It’s swank and gorgeous – huge art pieces on the wall, impeccable furniture – it’s a wow.  She is elegantly and simply attired, but with set decoration, hair and makeup, you quickly understand that this is a woman of formidable taste and wealth.  Whatever ills befell her during the holocaust, she has had the last laugh by living well.  I loved the costume here – her top is white, and she wears a white sweater around her shoulders.  For someone who wore stark black at the trial, this is a definite costume arc.  She goes from victim to victor – it’s nice poetic framing to the bigger themes of the movie.

The background players are very thoughtfully attired as well.  There is a waitress in the country town where they take their bicycle tour that needs mentioning.  Her uniform (or is it her street clothes?) is so peasant-like as to border on kitsch, but it completely works.  There are a few scenes at young Berg’s school, where again the kids (Ann Roth and her school children – as we saw in Doubt) are perfectly realized.  There is a gym class that is particularly well done – everything looks real and simply natural.  Of particular interest are the court and jail guard uniforms.  These costumes probably required some finessing, as I haven’t seen too many similar garments in rental houses here in the US.  I have many questions, and hopefully I will have many answers soon.

The Reader is not necessarily what you’d expect it to be.  I was impressed by its subtlety, its style, and its ultimate message about love, guilt, redemption and (who’d a thunk it) literacy.  The costumes are silent background singers to these themes, and I think that they did their job beautifully.  You won’t come out of the theater whistling the costumes, as they say, but that is precisely the point.

– KMB

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