Powerful, riveting, encompassing, at times harrowing, The Reader is sophisticated and emotionally realistic to a degree rarely encountered in film. It demands intellectual and emotional maturity, and isn't entertainment in the conventional sense. It challenges us to think, evaluate and decide.
It's about secrets, truth and love warped by it, guilt, responsibility and abdication of it, judgment, kindness, and ultimate, difficult acceptance.
(Spoiler alert, for what follows is retold story/commentary hybrid. Please see this profound and unforgettable 2008 film for yourself. It will eclipse anything you read below.)
The film begins by showing us 52-year-old Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes, in an upscale apartment preparing breakfast. Text on the screen tells us it's Berlin, 1995. He calls to a woman who's obviously slept over and leaves shortly after, trailing the question, "When will anyone stay long enough to know what goes on in your mind?"
Michael gazes out a window into the rain and sees a transit bus passing. Seeing an adolescent boy in the bus window takes him back in time and memory to when he, 15-year-old Michael Berg, brilliantly played by David Kross, from an upper middle class family in Berlin, West Germany, crossed paths with 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, a female transit employee played by Kate Winslet. Her performance as Hanna won her the 2008 Best Actress Academy Award and BAFTA.
Hanna finds a vomiting Michael, who's developing Scarlet Fever, in the alley entrance to her modest apartment where he's taken refuge from heavy rain. She takes him home, helps him clean up, and guides him back to his neighborhood. The encounter leaves an indelible impact on Michael and he later returns with flowers and thanks.
So begins a complex sexual and emotional relationship between them, one in which Hanna initiates Michael sexually, and in which we see Michael grow in years and maturity. At Hanna's request, Michael reads to her, usually preceding intimacy. As years pass, we see Michael's secret relationship, his stolen hours with Hanna, begin to impact and intrude upon his life.
Though neither focus nor intent of the film, Michael's emotional involvement and fallout over time speaks to an issue society is only now acknowledging, that power and/or age imbalance in early sexual encounters can adversely impact males as well as females. To a much greater extent, the film speaks to the lasting impact early, powerful emotional relationships have on lives. Though sexuality permeated and suffused Michael's early relationship with Hanna -- explicitly, sensuously depicted -- it grew far beyond sex for him, and arguably, for her, though to a much lesser degree. We really never came to know Hanna to the extent we know Michael.
As time lessens sexual heat between them, Michael seeks to expand their relationship. He plans a bike trip, and they cycle into the countryside, eating at an inn where a female server believes Hanna to be Michael's mother, and while leaving and in her view, he kisses Hanna on the lips, wanting to correct the assumption. Hanna sits in a church in that village in which a young choir is practising, strong emotion on her face. Michael looks on from a distance, taking pleasure from an experience he's given Hanna. It's a moment that symbolizes and foretells how little he/we may know someone, or about them.
As Michael's peer-group activities begin to interfere with his secret time with Hanna, Michael's growing self-assertion and their differing maturity levels create conflict.
Then suddenly, without warning, Hanna is gone, her modest apartment empty.
Michael is devastated, bereft, isolated in his secret loss and grief, unwilling, unable to share it. He's always been distant from his family, from a father pictured as years older than we might expect, rigid, detached and formal; a mother subservient and austere, and siblings with whom he seems to have no relationship.
Time passes and 1966 finds 23 year-old Michael at Law School in Heidelberg where he's among a select few who voluntarily take a lecture series on The Question of German Guilt. The professor, played by Bruno Ganz, and small group travel to a high-profile trial where six former female Nazi SS guards are about to go on trial for Holocaust involvement. It's twenty-one years since WWII ended.
While bending to retrieve something from his case, Michael is stunned to hear Hanna Schmitz's name among the six accused. As the trial progresses, he will often bend forward and down, both from the onslaught of horrific information, and to hide his emotion.
Hanna is now 43 years old. Through trial questioning we learn the extent of Hanna's personal responsibility and guilt. She was in charge of her Nazi guard component. We get brief insight into her rigid thinking, her stated reasons for acting as she did, her concern for order at horrific human expense, and how readily she surrendered and transferred ethical responsibility to others, despite having voluntarily joined the Nazi SS in 1943.
In an attempt to reconcile the woman he loved, the person who'd had a monumental impact on his still-young life, Michael travels to the remains of a concentration camp, seeing for himself the barbed wire, the countless rows of rickety bare wooden beds, the 'showers,' the ovens, the overwhelming horror.
At this point I paused the DVD, wanting to write this before seeing how the story resolved. Powerfully moved and doubting there'd be a facile ending given preceding complexity, I still feared the conclusion might somehow alter or dilute. Whatever the medium, narrative shapes emotion. Knowing doesn't make us immune.
With time to mentally analyze the movie conflicts, I thought of times in my own life, of much lesser importance and scope, when loved ones or friends demonstrated behavior and capabilities that were surprising, disappointing, even shocking and cruel, and how I've never been able to banish the incident(s) from memory, how it/they've impacted my relationship with them, often in secret within myself. And also to wonder how something I've done may have, may be impacting others. True for all of us to one degree or another, no doubt, but an issue rarely confronted in society, apart from law. Forgiveness is talked and written about and recommended, but I've yet to read anything that delves into the magnitude of a wrong, and how it factors in.
Collective German guilt is an exception that's received attention through art, plays and scholarly work. Attention is currently being turned on Japan and what some believe is Japan's unwillingness to confront, expose and take responsibility for wartime activities, both publicly and through selective school curriculum. It's a complicated issue, and always easier to point away from our own national wrongs.
Canada is forever stained by how we treated indigenous people, our tearing of First Nations' children from their homes and families, forcing them into residential schools where they were emotionally, physically and sexually abused and neglected, in a smug, openly-declared government policy, often willingly executed through churches, to assimilate them, to "make them like us, white and proper."
Our Canadian Prime Minister's official apology, a bureaucratic and insulting process for scant monetary reparations, and the series of national reconciliation forums broadly based on South Africa's, will never, ever compensate for what was done to a proud and noble people. Victims and their families came to those public forums to tell their heartbreaking stories and have them recorded. Unsurprisingly, I recall only one government agent of the day appearing, at least only one whose press coverage I'm aware of. He appeared voluntarily, haunted by what he'd inflicted in his youth at the will of the state. First Nations people and Canada suffer from the travesty still, and will for generations to come.
We're aware of national and international controversies and alleged wrongdoing in the real world through global news coverage, but it's much more difficult to face and deal with grievous wrong that's up close and personal, rather than distant and abstract.
Both were simultaneously thrust upon Michael in that German courtroom. When he tells his professor about knowing Hanna, the professor asks Michael, "Have you spoken to her?" Michael answers, "Of course not." Professor Rohl replies, "Why, 'of course not' ? If people like you don't learn from what happened to people like me, then what the hell is the point of anything?!"
Found guilty of murder in 300 cases, the five guards on trial with Hanna were each sentenced to 4 years, 3 months in prison. Because Hanna was their superior and responsible for the orders given, she received life.
Despite near-completed attempts to visit Hanna in prison, Michael was never able to follow through. Truth was too overwhelming, too powerful, too daunting.
Ten years later in 1976, while surveying books packed for moving as a result of his failed marriage, paging through The Odyssey, lost in reverie, he read a resonating passage he'd read to Hanna,
Sing to me of the Man, Muse
The man of twists and turns
Driven time and again off course
Once he had plundered the hallowed
heights of Troy
Sing to me of the Man, Muse
The man of twists and tur
Haunted by her and memory of their past, an idea occurs. He begins to re-read books he'd once read to her onto audio tapes, imbuing them with appropriate animation, indulging his love of literature, reliving golden hours. He mails them with a player to her in prison, adding countless others over time. They and Michael's voice are a stunning, life-sustaining surprise to visibly-aged Hanna, who appears to be - to have always been - alone in the world, a solitary soul. Though not actually so, and despite now having a daughter, Michael is essentially still like Hanna, solitary, introverted, aloof, but with greater depth of humanity. They were physically apart, both emotionally adrift, yet still connected by a timeless bond.
Quiet, bitter irony overwhelmed me as Hanna is seen stating her prisoner number to claim her mail. Her number wasn't burned into her flesh, nor did it promise starvation, torture and death.
Hanna selects matching books from the prison library and uses them with the tapes to learn to read and write English. Since the film's spoken language is English, this was momentarily confusing for me. We'd seen Hanna defer to young Michael's food selection at a country inn during their cycling trip. It appeared Hanna couldn't read the menu, but what language was it in? The underlying issue wasn't yet evident, at least to me.
Michael receives an envelope addressed in rudimentary style, opens the envelope, unfolds the enclosed paper, reads it, places it on his desk in his refined, book-lined office, steps back from it, seemingly in shock, but what else? ... distaste? ... unwelcome intrusion? ... rejection?
|Screen capture, The Reader|
There's no need of a signature. Hanna always addressed him as "kid."
Hanna looks for a written response which never comes. As her vocabulary minutely increases, she writes
|Screen capture, The Reader|
She'd taught young Michael the language of sex and love; now their roles are reversed. Indirectly, through his tapes, he's teaching her to communicate via the basic written/printed word, offering Hanna hope, an avenue through which to renew their relationship. Will he?
He cannot. He does not. He keeps the envelopes and their contents in a small separate cabinet, as if to symbolically isolate that part of his life. We see him throw another of her envelopes into a drawer and kick it shut, as if to say, "Stay out!"
Years pass. Hanna's been in prison for 22 years. It's 1988 in West Berlin and Michael receives a call from a prison official asking if he's received her letter advising him that Hanna's due for release and she's listed him her only contact. She adds that Hanna has no family and no friends. He admits receiving the letter and confirms he's never visited Hanna. Will he take responsibility for her, the official asks. While listening, Michael's doodle is telling. It depicts aspects of the courtroom where Hanna was tried and convicted, and the gallery where he sat.
|Screen capture, The Reader|
Michael hangs up without giving a commitment. He is troubled. His penchant for order, his insistence upon it, emblematic of German society and culture, subtly noted in both he and Hanna throughout the film, has been breached. Finally, he summons the courage to go to Hanna's prison and is forewarned by the official, "For a long time, Hanna held herself together, she was very purposeful. In the last few years, she's different. She's let herself go."
Hanna is strikingly old now, grey-haired, haggard, vacant in expression, her 66-year-old eyes dull but aware. Successful lawyer Michael, now 45, smiles wanly at her, sits down across from her at their otherwise-empty table in a near-empty room. There is little reaction in Hanna's face as she timidly reaches her hand across the table toward him and says, "You've grown up, kid." Michael is visibly, though subtly, taken aback, possibly remembering her as he last saw her 22 years ago, possibly remembering other things. He slowly slides his hand across the table to meet hers, gently grasps it, then withdraws it and begins a recitation of arrangements he's made for her.
Resigned understanding appears on Hanna's face, and she quietly thanks him. Nothing of what they once had is evident in him, not even a superficial attempt to renew acquaintance. His manner is pained, perfunctory and obligatory, lacking in emotion and any sense of shared history. In an exchange about reading, Hanna indicates she prefers to be read to, but sensing and seeing his rigid, non-response, follows it with, "That's over now, isn't it?" Michael inclines his head, unwilling to meet her eyes. That possibility vanished for Michael in a courtroom when she was 43 and he 23.
Their relationship raises the real-life question for which answers will differ from person to person: how much is forgivable and how much do deeds impact and irrevocably sever relationships?
Michael deftly probes to see if the years have brought Hanna to terms with what she'd done. Hanna is focused on their personal connection, reiterates her long-ago courtroom attitude and smashes his hope by stating, "... they were still dead," and what she's learned is "to read."
Michael's tells her he's found her a "small, but nice place to live, near a library, and a job with a tailor." He'll be back to pick her up when she's released in a week.
They stand, Hanna desperately wants to reach out and embrace him, but he's rigid and remote, as if virtual stranger. Resigned, she simply says, "Take care, kid." He replies, "You, too; see you next week," and walks away.
Outside, he is troubled. We next see him decorating a bright apartment, we assume for Hanna, then going to the prison, flowers in hand, to pick her up. Perhaps the flowers signal a tiny degree of warmth, a minor acknowledgment of good in their past. She's still Hanna.
Again, a catastrophic event intervenes. The larger past, the important part they shared, and any future are all irrevocably sealed.
Hanna is dead. She's taken her own life.
The official takes him to Hanna's cell where her pages are still posted and her effects remain. She tells him Hanna never intended to leave, and reads him a section of requests she left. It asks that a tin tea can containing money be given to Michael who's to return it to the daughter who testified at her trial, who escaped with her mother a fire in which they and other prisoners were trapped because of Hanna's order. Michael collapses in bitter tears. Hanna did take responsibility, felt remorse, and was trying to symbolically make amends in the only tangible way she could. Words were not her language of choice; Hanna dealt in deeds, as was evident when she was hurt and angry with young Michael when he didn't sit in her specific transit car section. Deeds spoke starkly and unambiguously to and for Hanna.
We next see Michael enter a luxurious American apartment in which a menorah is visible on a side table. It's the now middle-aged daughter's home of Ilana Mather, played by Lena Olin, and their brief visit is uncomfortable and painful, possibly more so for Michael, though it evokes past trauma for Ilana. Under blunt questioning, he reveals for the first time to anyone, his youthful history with Hanna. The daughter understands his unspoken connection, asks -- though it goes unanswered -- whether Hanna ever understood the effect she had on Michael's life. She is unforgiving of Hanna and unwilling to accept the money, but does want the tea can. It replaces a childhood keepsake, one stolen from her in the camp.
Michael tells her Hanna was illiterate and learned to read in prison, so she agrees with Michael's suggestion that the money be donated to a Jewish literacy program and leaves it to Michael's judgment whether it's made in Hanna's name. The daughter places Hanna's battered tea can on a dresser next to a picture of a family with young children, presumably her family before Nazi horror and the camps.
It's now January, 1995. Michael takes his twenty-something daughter to a country church. It's the same one in which Hanna sat listening to a practising children's choir during their joyous, long-ago cycling trip, the same one near which she'd told Michael not to tell her where they were going, responding to his offer with, "It's okay, kid. I don't want to know."
In the church cemetery he clears off a modest, square, flat headstone which reads
1922 - 1988
He begins to tell his daughter about Hanna.
It seems right and necessary to list those most responsible for a film so important, one of such power and grace. Many others contributed, though their names are absent below.
Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Published in Germany in 1995 and a textbook in German schools
(Shot in Berlin, Released 2008)
Produced by, and in loving memory of
- and -
Directors of Photography
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
From her own account in a DVD bonus section, Ms. Broch left her native Germany 40 years earlier in angry response to her country's war history and silence about it. Her first return since then was to work on this film, for which she did extensive and difficult research.
Costumes Designed by