The Reader is a grave, intellectual odyssey of shame and awakening set in post WWII Berlin. At the outset is the story of a young boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) who has a chance meeting with a much older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Michael is ill and Hanna comforts him and sees to it he gets home safely. After a long recovery period Michael returns to her flat to thank her. They become romantically involved over the next several months, which causes Michael to rebuff his school friends and hurry back to spend hours with Hannah. She seems fascinated with his studies and compels him to read to her before they make love. His obsession is her, her obsession is with the printed word. One day, without any advance notice, Hannah packs her bags and leaves.
Another story emerges while Michael is in law school and attends a Holocaust trial as part of a seminar. It’s in this part of the narrative that the big themes are explored by the author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink. Mr. Schlink is a law professor and mystery writer from Berlin. The filmmakers’ production notes call the book a semi-autobiographical novel, and it was critically acclaimed and reached the top of the bestseller lists in dozens of countries. The second act is where the emotional torture takes place. Michael represents an innocent post-Holocaust German generation. The parents of these kids are trying to reconcile what they knew about the camps and reassess why they didn’t do more to stop it. The banter between the seminar students and their learned professor provides clues to the debate Germany had with it’s conscious, but in the end there are no satisfying answers.
Everyone in the picture is torn over something or someone. And when Michael gets the opportunity later in life to bring some form of closure, he tries, but his heart, which was mortally wounded 30 years prior, is not fully up to the task. He does call on his voice to do the work of his heart, and in the end is able to finally tell someone, his teenage daughter, of his encounter with Hannah in his youth.
Ms. Winslet is excellent at providing the empty shell where Hannah’s character resides. But for me that’s one of the challenges of the film. We know virtually nothing of Hannah’s past. There is no warmth, only a misguided sense of duty and flawed logic offered as motivation. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.” The supporting performances are top notch and the narrative cross-cutting is particularly effective at advancing the older Michael character (Ralph Fiennes). It’s this device that finally gives us something hold on to.
The film was produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who are masters at translating literature to the screen (The English Patient, Out of Africa). The Reader unfolds like a book; thoughtfully staged and artfully paced. Unfortunately we lost both Mr. Minghella and Mr. Pollack in 2008.
The Reader is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Ms. Winslet for Best Actress and the film for Best Picture. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) also gets an Oscar nod. It is his vision and command of the medium that makes The Reader compelling viewing.
You can visit the official Reader web site here. Photo credits: The Weinstein Co.