I have just finished watching ‘The Reader’, a film that uses two very clever storytelling devices or, to be precise, one device twice. Near the beginning of the film the main character Michael Burke attends a literature class. The teacher writes ‘Odysseus’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Faust’ on the blackboard and says to his class:
“The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature. You may say the whole idea of character in fiction is defined by people holding specific information which for various reasons – sometimes perverse, sometimes noble – they are determined not to disclose.”
This stuck out to me for two reasons: first I am interested in storytelling so it is valuable information, second it tells the audience in precise language EXACTLY what the story is about. It lays the central theme out right there and then. We find out that the story is about two people defined by their secrets; their characters are heavily influenced by secrets, their actions dictated by secrets, and their destinies directed by secrets.
The film is divided into two clear sections (there is a third section, but this is largely unimportant to the story because it is one of resolutions rather than actions and consequences). The second section is introduced by another classroom scene. Michael is now older and taking pre-law. The lecturer tells his small group of students that the reading list only has one book on it: “Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt.” And there we have it: the second theme, which builds the story. Personal secrets and German guilt over the holocaust – the story’s central themes clearly stated using the same tool: a figure of authority informing his students, a film telling its audience.
Written by Adrian Robinson
27th January, 2010