Excuses, absolution, justification or understanding?
At its essence, “The Reader”, adapted from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, is about morality. The question the film asks the audience is: if you knew important information about something, information that could possibly save or transform one’s life, but knew that this reprieve was probably undeserved due to a previous crime, would you give up that information?
At its story level, “The Reader” is about a romance; an inexplicable affair that fills a void and helps a young boy come of age, but it is a doomed romance, that leads to a man losing innocence before he is ready, a blow that leaves him emotionally crippled for life once he discovers the terrible truths about his former lover.
At its thematic level, “The Reader” wishes to have its issues be about shame and hiding what one believes to be a secret more personal and embarrassing that is worth going to prison to keep. But “The Reader” presents this theme, wrapped in the horrific trappings of crimes against humanity. The said crimes overwhelm the true message of the film, and that is where the narrative fails.
The film opens on a German lawyer named Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). On a trip to visit his daughter, he recalls an event in his life that has haunted his memories and crippled his relationships. He recalls growing ill as a teenager (played in flashbacks by David Kross) and being helped by a stern but compassionate woman working for the rail cars in West Berlin in 1958. When he recovers and goes to thank her, he finds himself entering into an affair with the woman.
Her name was Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet in her Oscar winning role). He goes to visit her every day after school in the summer, and they have a unique love affair: he reads aloud from his books first, and then lovemaking follows. One day he returns to her apartment to find that she vanished without a trace.
Eight years later, while taking a special class for law school, Michael, his professor and a group of students attend the ongoing war crimes trials. It is there that Michael’s sense of morality and world views are forever distorted. It is at these trials he once again sees Hanna . . . as Hanna goes on trial for being a former Nazi concentration camp guard that allegedly aided in the burning death of 300 Jews under her watch.
Director Daldry and screenwriter David Hare try to make this a compelling moral argument. Legally, she is guilty, at least by sheer negligence. From a legal standpoint, it may have been “right” for Michael to defend her, but morally, he was right in keeping quiet, as his defense would seem more like an excuse. Hanna makes no effort to hide her involvement thus Michael was compelled out of anger and betrayal for keeping silent in a sense of moral righteousness. But the film’s objectivity dwindles when it asks the audience to sympathize with Hanna’s plight in an awkward forceful way.
Older Michael, after thirty years of reflection sees it perhaps an act of his own shame (that he had an affair with a NAZI he does not openly say, but clearly he and his younger self feel that way), and perhaps, he should have been more understanding of Hanna’s plight.
He confesses all of this to a survivor of the Holocaust, and a woman that was under Hanna’s watch (Lena Olin) who is unsurprisingly unmoved by his confession. She rightly asks if she should grant absolution to Hanna for her sins or if he’s just looking to feel better about himself. Michael’s obsession to seek understanding isn’t really needed; the film shows enough of Hanna to know that she and him had fun while they were together; but he was only a tool for her (the way she always calls him “kid”) and that their special practice was once used in the concentration camp (probably not for sexual favors, but the reading aloud comes off not only as a betrayal of Michael’s emotions but also a repugnant attempt to cast Hanna in a better life).
Fiennes is wonderfully understated as the adult Michael, but his sense of trying to come to an understanding eventually grows tiresome, and his monologues can become more of a pandering effort to reroute the film to its original message. He seeks understanding and redemption for a soul who neither wants nor deserves it, or was it love? In contrast, Kross as a moody teenager plays the young Michael with a depth that is fascinating.
“The Reader,” however, is Kate Winslet’s film, through and through. She does a fantastic job at portraying a woman who is almost literally paralyzed by the fear of her dark secret being discovered. She is tough and authoritative in her early scenes with young Michael and rightly confused and terrified at the court proceedings around her later. Her scene in prison where she met Michael for the first time in so many years is spellbinding. It is painfully obvious that Michael craves an apology, for something, anything, from Hanna. And yet Kate Winslet does not allow even a flicker of remorse or regret to cross Hanna’s face for her part in the war or for leaving Michael without a word (“no one should apologize to anybody,” she once howled at young Michael). For that alone, she is worthy of the Oscar and BAFTA that she received for her role. Though she has had big parts in the past, and was competing against herself with her role in “Revolutionary Road”, her performance in “The Reader” is in my opinion, her best so far.
I won’t spoil the ending completely, but Hanna does not leave prison. The film, despite the lapses and failed attempts at being an intellectual outing, is worth watching.