The Reader – 2008
This was a good movie with a very unique plot. It stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and David Kross. The performances were good, especially Winslet. The movie, at its core, was a love story, but it was very unconventional in its approach. There was also a subplot having to do with the Holocaust, but despite what many critics complain about, it was not a Holocaust movie. It was a romance that involved two complex characters.
Kross played the character of Michael Berg as a teenager. Fiennes played him as an adult. As an interesting little note, I thought Kross looked more like a young Michael York than a Ralph Fiennes, though York would have been far too old to play the adult Michael. Winslet played his lover, Hannah Schmitz in both time periods. In the latter parts of the film, they gave Winslet the old age makeup, which reportedly took seven hours to apply every day.
Anyway, the story was about young Michael who meets and has an affair with the older Hannah. She is very controlling and often insensitive to the boy, but he latches on to her with a love born of infatuation and she teaches him about sex. Michael is still in school, studying to be a lawyer. Seeing his school books, Hannah asks him to read to her. She insists that being read to should become a part of their trysts. But eventually the affair ends because Hannah gets a promotion at her job. You see, Hannah is illiterate and her promotion would cause her shameful secret to be discovered.
But really, that is all setup for the moral dilemma of the plot. Years later, Michael’s law class attends a trial which accuses a number of German women of a Nazi war crime. The accused women allegedly locked three hundred Jewish women in a church while it burned down. Among the defendants is Hannah. For me, this is where Winslet really earned her Oscar. Her character was not very intelligent. It wasn’t the fact that she allowed all the other defendants to put most of the blame for the travesty on her in order to hide her illiteracy from the court. It was because of her strange attitude towards the horrible event itself.
When asked about her compliance in the cruel deaths that were being called murders, she was not only honest and matter-of-fact about it, she actually defended what had happened. She seemed confused as to why she was on trial, what she had done wrong. She was confused about why the other women were denying what they had done. When asked, “To make room, (for new arrivals at the concentration camp) you were picking women out and saying ‘you and you and you have to be sent back (to Auschwitz) to be killed.’” Her uncertain but honest response was, “Well, what would you have done? Should I never have signed up (to be a guard) at Siemens?”
And when asked about why they had refused to unlock the church doors, she responded by saying, “Obviously. For the obvious reason. We couldn’t.” “Why couldn’t you?” “We were guards. Our job was to guard the prisoners. We couldn’t just let them escape.” And further, “If we’d opened the doors there would have been chaos. How could we have restored order?” Winslet made me believe that the character of Hannah really believed what she was saying, that it would have been wrong of her to open the doors. It was a wonderful moment in the film that really drove the character and her motivations home. Well done, Kate!
And here is where the main conflict of the plot is finally addressed. It concerned the young Michael’s moral dilemma, when, during the trial, he realizes that Hannah could not have written the incriminating document for which she was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has to decide whether he should tell the court, or abide by her obvious wishes to keep her illiteracy a secret, and allow her to be judged unfairly. As penance for keeping her secret, Michael spends years of his life sending her cassette recordings of himself reading books to her. And using his recordings, Hannah teaches herself how to read and write.
But the ending is sad. Having learned to read, she reads a book written by one of the few survivors of the church fire massacre in which the horrific events are described in detail. Hannah finally understands, and in a fit of guilt and remorse, she hangs herself. Yes, there were other sub plots, one in particular involving Ilana Mather, the survivor who wrote the book, played by Lena Olin, was interesting. But all in all, it was a very unique story that made me think, and was well-told, despite all the nudity, which at times, almost seemed a little gratuitous. Incidentally, I read that the sex scenes were filmed last after David Cross turned eighteen. The film’s director, Stephen Daldry, should be commended.