The Reader (2008, directed by Stephen Daldry) is a film about secrets, guilt, and shame.
In 1958 West Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a much older woman who helps him when he falls sick in the street. When he recovers, he goes back to her flat to thank her, and they fall into a passionate affair. She has him read books to her before they make love, and they spend the summer this way. Hanna is a ticket collector for a tram, but when she’s told she’s gotten a promotion to the office, she suddenly decides to disappear without a word to anyone, least of all Michael, who is devastated.
Eight years later, he’s a law student accompanying his seminar teacher and peers to a trial, which is trying several women who had been former prison guards for the SS. One of the women is Hanna. He watches helplessly as she is accused of letting Jewish prisoners die in a burning church. He comes to realize a secret about Hanna, one that would affect her sentencing. His decision whether or not to come forward with that secret lies at the heart of the film: what is his moral obligation to this woman, a woman he believed he had loved and who then broke his heart; a woman who undoubtedly had, by “following orders”, sent countless Jews to Auschwitz.
Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael, who looks back on the past and wonders if he’d done the right thing. His relationship with Hanna, and what happened afterward, had affected his ability to form close relationships in his life, and he’s a bit estranged from his daughter, Julia. His second key decision of the film, as an adult, leads to a scene with a survivor (Lena Olin) that is painfully awkward and icky, illustrating the struggle of collective German guilt over the Holocaust.
The cast was excellent, the film thought-provoking, but ultimately it left a kind of bad taste in my mouth. I can’t seem to put my finger on it; but it seems like two films together: the first half filled with a young man’s sexual awakening amid torrid sex scenes; the second half a somber morality tale wrapped up with the weight of horrendous war crimes. The two don’t mesh well. And the film seems to ask us what we should make of Hanna. Is she a sympathetic character? Was she a “victim of circumstances”? Do we even have the right to ask that question?
The Reader manages to pull in the viewer with great performances, sex, and the lure of secrets, but its weighty issues perhaps deserve a better forum than this.