Occasionally a film is so powerful the music seems to disappear into the seams, to fade away into the crevices or hide beneath the edges of the carpet, as we all try to do occasionally in life. It's not that the music isn't there, but that the music and the images are so in tune with each other it is impossible to imagine the images without hearing the music long after the credits have rolled off the screen and the cleaners are preparing the theater for the next round of viewers. "The Reader" is such a film and Nico Muhly's score is perfect for the occasion.
This is not an easy film. The subject matter raises the question of guilt and forgiveness for Nazi war crimes against the Jews. The crimes were dark and horrible and too easily shoved back into the history books because we don't like to look at the images, because we don't want to feel responsible for them (anymore). And yet, that sort of insensitivity is part of what allowed the crimes in the first place. "It is not what we think, or what we feel. It is what we do."
In an interview Nico talks about not allowing any of the themes to resolve. As the film progresses (the few times I was able to pull myself out of the film enough to focus on the music), the lack of resolve was exactly what the scene needed; to walk from moment to moment to memory to present, from situation to situation without realization or contemplation, just action, subtle, quiet, but with purpose even if action isn't really thinking about the effects. It just is the action taking place at the moment.
As the credits pulled across the screen in the end we are treated to the main theme, with the slow lament of the piano in minor thirds, moving, wandering, never settling, ending, just always moving slowly with purpose but not in any particular direction. Then we get strings underneath as they shimmer, rather like the daylight might off a muddy window, not with any brilliance, but instead providing a light that is almost darker than it was without it. A clarinet plays a similar theme to the piano and yet seems to be miles away in structure or form. Constantly the music shifts, but as each new element comes in, it sneaks rather and is announced, becomes a part of the tapestry before we're aware of it, rather than starting a new section.
As each element of the music played I found myself wandering through the images of the film and realizing I wasn't playing the film in sequential order, but in the order of the images corresponding to the themes. When the themes were lighter (if there is such a thing), the scenes had a lightness to them, as if almost playful. Other times the themes had the striking effect of the gavel on a judges bench, pronouncing a sentence, or driving us to the gallows with a slow steady pace. But the music doesn't allow us to die, or grieve, or ignore. The music makes us relive each moment of the film, to make connections we hadn't, connections to our own life, our own actions to see if there is any resonances in who we are.
Don't let this movie hide away. Go see it, several times, until the music is part of your memories, part of your thoughts, part of why you won't ever let something like this happen again. Pull it out of the corners, from behind the crevices and scream. No, this isn't music or a movie to scream to, but we should all be screaming at ourselves - telling ourselves NOT to just feel or be, but to do. Nico Muhly's music echos the images perfectly. Perhaps the best score to a film all year.