Can the children born after a war ever forgive parents who took part in it? Can you love someone who did monstrous acts? These are questions common to post-WWII Germans, and for that matter, for the generations after any war. The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s complex and controversial 1995 bestseller, is a holocaust story but the questions the movie raises certainly don’t relate only to Germany, they relate to all of us.
The movie starts in 1995 where we meet a mature Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges), a morose lawyer who can’t connect to anyone, not his lovers, not even his daughter. In flashback, we learn how he arrived at this emotional deadend.
In 1958, 15-year-old student Michael Berg (David Kross, Krabat) gets desperately ill on the way home from school and a stranger takes care of him. This is Hanna Schmidt (Kate Winslet, All the King’s Men), a no-nonsense tram operator who punches tickets with the same thoroughness that she vigorously bathes herself. At 34 she is twice Michael’s age but her kindness and earthy sensuality, as well as the secrets she refuses to reveal, hypnotize him. When he recovers from a 6-month bout with scarlet fever, Michael finds Hanna to thank her and they start a passionate summer romance. As important as their lovemaking is, Hanna’s keenest desire is for Michael to read to her, and he eagerly dramatizes the classic epics and novels he’s learned to treasure in school. To Hanna, Michael is a passing fancy–she calls him, “kid.” Michael, of course is madly in love.
One day Hanna disappears without a word, leaving Michael devastated. Eight years later, in 1966, he is a law student in a special ethics class that attends the trial of six female SS guards who are charged with the murder of hundreds of women and children. Bombs set fire to the church where the prisoners had been housed and the guards locked the door to keep them from escaping. Only one woman survived and she has written a book about the crime. Without the book, the former guards, like thousands of other former members of the SS would have gone undetected.
Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of the defendants. Repulsed by her crimes and sickened that he had once loved her, he admits to no one why he keeps looking at her. As the trial continues, he realizes he knows one of Hanna’s secrets and if he reveals it to the court, she would receive a lesser sentence. But, like many, if not most Germans during the war, and like many other people at all times in history, Michael sins by failing to take action. He keeps silent and Hanna is condemned to life in prison.
In time, driven by guilt, perhaps even by a residue of love, Michael tries to make amends to Hannah in the only way he knows how–he records books on tape and sends t hem to her, but he never writes her and never visits. After nearly three decades, they meet for a few minutes. Anguished, Michael asks Hanna if her time in prison has made her sorry for the crimes she has done. But he learns that the expiation he wants for her, for him, for the entire population of Germany, is not hers to give.
Kate Winslet’s performance is breathtakingly incredible, certainly the start turn of the year if not of many years. She is fun-loving one minute, wounded the next, monstrous in another. Her emotions and the complicated intellectual journeys behind them flit across her face like reflections from spinning shards of glass. You can’t take your eyes off her and when the movie is over you can’t forget her. Director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare partnered before on another film notable for its women’s performances, The Hours (starring Nicole Kidman, Julianna Moore and Meryl Streep). In The Reader, they’ve created a mature, intellectually challenging movie that chooses the elegance of restraint where other teams might have gone for emotional upheavals.
Some critics have said that the movie errs by making Hanna so mesmerizing that her crimes are diminished. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kate Winslet made Hanna human, she is both lovable and evil, and seeing that is what disturbs us because we like our villains to be clearly delineated. When they are one of us, they are too close to comfort.
I’ve seen The Reader three times and each time I find something new to admire. I urge you to see it on the big screen where the power of the performances can be fully appreciated and then see it later on DVD to enjoy its nuances.