“The whole idea of literature is about people holding information that, for reasons of their own—sometimes noble, sometimes not—they are determined not to disclose.” So begins the wonderfully complex plot of Stephen Daldry’s film “The Reader,” adapted from Bernard Schlink’s book by Oscar-nominated David Hare.
Michael Berg, a 15-year-old student (David Kross) gets off a tram and becomes ill in the damp narrow Berlin alley outside Hanna Schmitz’s (Kate Winslet’s) cramped upper-floor apartment. The much older woman takes pity on the poor, drenched wretching teen-ager and, after drawing a bath for him so that he can clean up from his bout of vomiting, gives him a ride home where he is ordered to bed for months for Scarlet Fever.
Michael even tells his mother about this act of compassion on the part of the strange woman and, when he recovers, he decides to thank Hanna by taking her flowers. One thing leads to another and the repressed, spooked woman—who persists in addressing Michael as “Kid”—does more than just give the handsome young man a ride home. She gives him a new passion in his life, a sexual liaison with an older women, which, he later says, lasted only for four weeks over one summer.
One day, Michael goes to see Hanna to discover that she has simply vanished. He does not see her again until 1966, when he is a law school student in Heidelberg Law School.
The Professor in the law seminar tells Michael and the 4 others in his seminar, “Societies think they operate by something called morality, but they don’t.” The professor goes on to say, “The question was never ‘Was it wrong?’ but ‘Was it legal by the laws at the time?'” He then takes his quintet of students to watch the hearings dealing with the question of German guilt in the persecution of the Jews. Michael (David Kross) is stunned to discover that one of the six defendants is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, and, furthermore, that the other five women are lying outright and trying to pin the blame on Hanna, in an attempt to save themselves.
There are clues throughout the film that Hanna is illiterate. She likes to have Michael read to her. (hence the film’s title). It is reported during the trial that she used to select certain prisoners from amongst the women she was guarding and have them read to her. She cannot read a menu when she and young Michael take a bicycling holiday. She is upset when her superiors on the tram praise her stern work ethic and promote her to office work. We suspect that Hanna cannot read or write, but this becomes a sticking point during the trial, when the five other defendants say that Hanna wrote the report of a fire in a church that killed all 300 women prisoners locked within when none of the female guards, of whom Hanna was one, would unlock the doors and release the prisoners. All but one of the prisoners burned to death. The other female defendants claim that Hanna “wrote the report.” We, the audience, know that Hanna could not have written the report, and Michael Berg, sitting in the gallery, knows it, as well. However, Hanna is so intent on keeping the secret of her illiteracy that she would rather suffer a much more severe sentence than endure the shame of having the world at large know her truth. And she does. While the other 5 defendants receive only 5 years apiece, Hanna takes the fall and is sentenced to life in prison.
There are many questions along the way, questions that the main character wrestles with that we, the audience, debate later. Did Michael remain silent to save his own skin? After all, he is an aspiring law student at this point in time, and consorting with a known Nazi might not be the best path to success in his chosen field. How would Michael explain his relationship with Hanna to others, if he reveals the knowledge that only he possesses? And is it Michael’s choice as to whether Hanna is “outed” as an illiterate or whether her secret remains hers to keep, despite the price she may pay? How much should one woman endure simply to avoid public embarrassment at her lack of formal education?
One of the most poignant lines in the film, as Hanna is bullied and badgered into submission, is her question to the Chief Prosecutor, “What would you have done? Should I never have taken the job at Seaman’s?” It was simply wanting to work hard that turned Hanna from a normal German fraulein into a German guard who literally held the power of life and death in her hands.
Michael Berg’s law professor sums up one of the themes of the film, which is, “If people like you don’t learn from people like me, then what-the-hell is the point of anything?”
Ralph Fiennes plays the adult Michael with his usual sensitivity and intensity. He makes a decision to honor Hanna’s desire to conceal the truth of her situation, but he begins sending her tapes, books he reads onto tapes and sends her, along with a tape recorder, to lighten her burden while incarcerated. We see Hanna begin to teach herself to read, from listening to the tapes over and over.
When Michael (Ralph Fiennes) finally sees Hanna, in prison, for the first and last time, she tells him, “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead.” He says to her, “I wasn’t sure what you had learned?” And Hanna replies, “I’ve learned to read.”
The rest of what happens at the film’s climax I am still mulling over in my mind. Did Hanna—who is now quite elderly and no longer sexually desirable to the adult Michael—feel so rejected by him during their visit that it brought about the finale? Did Hanna always plan for things to end the way they do, or was it a last-minute decision that occurred only after Michael’s visit, as they discuss her plans for a job and an apartment as she is paroled ?
The David Hare screenplay, based on the Bernard Schlink novel, is wonderful, filled with complex layer upon layer of meaning and with profound intellectual decisions that resonate. Hare is Oscar-nominated for Best Screenplay adapted from a novel.
Another thing that resonated for me was seeing the names of the two people to whom the film was dedicated, co-producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who are both now deceased. They were two professionals who will be sorely missed.
This is a wonderful film, a thought-provoking film, a tour-de-force performance from Kate Winslet, who is nominated for Best Actress and should win. The film also has a brief cameo by Lena Olin, who portrays the sole survivor of the church fire, who is now an adult living in New York City.
If you like your films character-driven and thought-provoking, as I do, put this one on your Must See list. If you only take your films “light,” maybe not.