WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Lawyer Michael Berg recalls his sexual awakening in post-war Germany, an affair he conducted with a significantly older woman named Hanna Schmitz. Michael reads to Hanna as part of their bonding experience and learns that love is a difficult game to master. He is also to discover how little he knows of Hanna when he encounters her in an entirely different context.
To his lovers, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is a closed book, emotionally speaking; but delving into his past reveals the reasons why…Struck down by scarlet fever in Neustadt in the late 1950s, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) is helped home by tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Some months later when he’s recovered, he goes to visit Hanna and the ‘kid’ willingly becomes her lover, though she puts a strange condition on the affair; before making love, Michael must read to her, whether from Chekhov or Twain, Homer’s Odyssey or Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin.
Michael and Hanna spend a summer together, including a cycling holiday, but it’s no idyll: firstly, Michael neglects his relationships with family and schoolfriends, including would-be girlfriend Sophie (Vijessna Ferkic); secondly, Hanna becomes increasingly troubled as she gets a promotion at work, ultimately disappearing altogether.
Several years later, Michael is a promising law student under the guidance of Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). As part of a select group of students, he visits a trial of six women who were SS guards at Auschwitz, and is horrified to find Hanna is not only one of them, but she also selected prisoners for death and made those she picked read to her. Worse still, she accompanied women and children on the ‘Death March’ from Krakow and was present when three hundred women and children were burned alive inside a locked church.
Hanna takes the blame for writing the report about the incident and Michael agonises over whether to divulge the secret he has just realised – the fact that Hanna cannot read or write. His decision impacts on both their lives, which remain intertwined nonetheless. And as Michael comes to term with his involvement with Hanna, he also tries to get closer to his estranged daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung).
Given that the Nazis’ “final solution” was the single most shocking, evil, horrifying event of the 20th Century, it’s hardly surprising that many, many films have sought to tell the dreadful stories: Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful to name just a few. Taking a German post-War viewpoint, The Reader proves that it is still possible to see events from new perspectives.
Of course, if you come to it blind the film starts off as a robust yet reflective coming of age tale, and one which is particularly good at exploring Michael’s own selfishness towards the rest of the world after discovering sex. The revelation of Hanna’s past life is a fascinating twist, and Michael’s reaction to her betrayal is played out incredibly thoughtfully; the violent reaction of his fellow students – and the distraction of (we assume) the first in a series of casual partners – proving a background for his decisions.
You can argue that The Reader concentrates too much on affairs of the heart: Michael visits Auschwitz, but the film is surprisingly coy about the full horror of Nazi atrocities, and it might have been instructive, if unpleasant, for the film to replay the events for which Hanna Schmitz and her co-defendants are tried. On the other hand, there is no cinematic law which states that every film that references the Nazis must concentrate exclusively on the victims; and anyway, there is a refreshingly honest perspective provided by Ilana Mather (Lena Olin), a survivor of the church fire, when Michael tries to make some sort of amends.
Bolstering the narrative are a number of very strong performances, most obviously that of Kate Winslet as Hanna. It’s not unfair to say that Winslet has undressed in more films than most actresses (eg. Titanic, Little Children, Holy Smoke, Jude, Iris), but it would be incredibly shallow to single out this single and relatively unimportant aspect of the film. Her performance as Hanna, at all ages, is excellent: hard, detached and not always comprehending the significance of her own self-incriminating honesty. It’s even better on a second watch, since earlier scenes such as Hanna’s emotional reaction to the children singing in church gain added significance. You do have to ask whether the shame of being illiterate would prevent someone from revealing their – how to phrase it – reduced culpability, but Winslet (aided by some brilliant make-up) is never less than totally convincing, portraying Hanna as vulnerable if never quite deserving sympathy.
Opposite Winslet, young David Kross does brilliantly to hold his own as Michael, stumbling into adulthood in bizarre and cruel circumstances. Alright, he doesn’t look much like Fiennes, and in truth what happens to Michael in his later life (his apparent inability to create lasting relationships with others) is less interesting as the ‘action’ of the film inevitably slows down after the trial; yet the film keeps a keen emotional power as Michael draws back from his involvement from a woman who becomes increasingly frail and forlorn.
In addition to its other accomplishments, The Reader is beautifully shot and edited, brilliantly creates the ambiance of every one of its diverse locations, and features a lovely score from Nico Muhly. Screenwriter David Hare also retains some of novelist Bernhard Schlink’s finest prose. In short, it’s a most impressive piece of work, a meditation on morality just brought down a peg or two by, in my opinion, following Michael into a self-involved future when we might have followed Hanna into her vile but formative past. Winslet thoroughly deserved her awards, but the film is worth watching for much more than her terrific performance alone.