For me, cinema (and the act of watching a film) has always been a sort of religious thing. True cinema, films that provoke and evoke an audience, is rare these days. Films in which you can lose yourself, your surroundings and allow yourself to be plunged into another time, another place are precious and few. They are lyrical, poignant, taking you from soaring heights of elation to the blackness of true despair. The true telling of a person’s story should leave you feeling emptied at the end of it, regardless of the manner in which you’ve arrived. The Reader accomplishes all of these things, and more.
The Reader begins in Berlin, Germany in 1995 with Michael Berg (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes, and as a young man by the brilliant David Kross) setting out fine china, boiled eggs, and coffee for an overnight guest. His surroundings are sterile, cold much in the way Michael is with his guest. As she leaves, he revisits his bedroom, viewing with dismay the dishelved sheets. He looks ashamed, confused. Outside, it’s raining, cold. He sees himself as a young man travelling home one day on a tram, feeling sick.
It’s 1958 now. Neustadt, West Germany. Young Michael is throwing up as he walks home in the pouring rain. He stops for a moment in an alcove, to rest, and to throw up some more. A woman passes by and cleans up his mess, stopping for a moment to wipe his face. In that moment she is kind, in a way, embracing him for a second and telling him everything will be all right. She helps him home. And as the rain turns to snow, he turns to walk away from her.
Michael is diagnosed with Scarlet Fever and must stay in bed for several months. When is finally on the mend, only a matter of moments in the film, he confides in his mother about the woman who helped him home that first day. We are left to believe it is his mother’s idea that he should go to the woman and show his appreciation for her help. With a bouquet of flowers in his hands, he turns up at Hanna’s (played by Kate Winslet whose turn in this role garnered her with a Academy Award) small apartment. Michael is young, probably not more than 16-17 years old, and innocent…but not that innocent. He is on the verge of becoming a man. As he watches her pull up her stockings through the open door of her apartment, all of this becomes apparent – and much more, because Hanna, after catching him looking at her, does not look away, does not scream, does not flinch. Instead, she returns his gaze. Michael, ashamed, aroused, confused runs away. Something has been awoken within him.
A few days later, unable to remove the image of Hanna standing in her stockings from his mind, Michael returns to Hanna’s apartment. You may feel uneasy by the relationship that blossoms between the significantly older Hanna and Michael. I think it’s probably meant to be unnerving, especially to those of us living in today’s world where it is considered inappropriate for a teacher to lay even a hand upon a student’s shoulder.
Covered in soot after retrieving some coal for Hanna’s apartment, Michael strips and takes a bath. There is no seduction here – Hanna simply undresses as well, and covers Michael in a towel as he gets out of the bath. They are just two people, alone, naked. It is difficult, and a little uncomfortable – everything your first time should be.
That night, as Michael sits at dinner with his family (reliving his afternoon with Hanna), everyone eyes him as if they know exactly what he’s been up to — but of course, they have no clue. He successfully makes his case to return to school if for no other reason than it’s close to Hanna, with whom he is about to embark on a summer-long affair. The love scenes between Kross and Winslet are erotically charged, tender, and teeming with forbidden lust. But, it isn’t until Michael begins reading to Hanna that their relationship begins to feel loving, intimate.
As Michael is drawn closer to Hanna, sexually, it becomes very clear there is a lot he doesn’t know about her…including her name. One evening, he finds her on a tram (she works as a boarding pass collector). Afterward, back at her apartment, they have their first fight. Hanna deflects her anger, accusing Michael of not wanting to be seen with her. It isn’t until later that we realize Hanna’s well protected veil of secrecy is a matter of life and death for her, and every time Michael gets a little bit closer to knowing who she really is Hanna must pull away a little bit more.
The two spend a very torrid summer together, taking a cycling holiday and reading everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Chekov’s The Lady with the Little Dog. There are little things you’re meant to pick up on throughout this time – Hanna’s discomfort at being asked to read anything (from a passage in a book, to a map, to a menu at a restaurant), Hanna’s emotional outpouring at a local church as she listens to a childrens choir. You are meant to know she is hiding something. But Michael sees none of it. He sees only the woman he has fallen in love with. Part of that is youth, yes, but there is the other, more important part — through eyes filled with love, we filter away all of the ugly, the unwanted, the wrong. What’s left is what we, as humans, are meant to see always when looking at another human being – the truth of a person.
The difficult part of The Reader isn’t only the inappropriate romance between Michael and Hanna. As the years pass, after their affair is ended abruptly after Michael’s 17th birthday, Michael begins his studies to become a lawyer. During his time at the Hiedelberg Law School, Michael’s instructor takes the class to sit in on the trial of six women – all of whom served as guards with the SS during World War II – one of whom is Hanna.
As the trial unfolds, and Hanna is called upon to defend her actions, it becomes clear she will stop at nothing to hide the fact that she is uneducated and completely illiterate. Yes, she was following orders. Yes, she knew she was choosing women and children to be sent to their deaths. Yes, all of it. But what was she to do? Michael, emotionally unable and morally unwilling to help Hanna’s case by disclosing to the authorities the fact that Hanna can neither read nor write, is destroyed as he watches the trial unfold. As the other women deny their role in the death of 300 women who died in a fire while under their watch, Hanna accepts the blame for all and is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ten years pass, and Michael gets married, has a child, gets divorced. As he’s moving into a new apartment, unpacking his books, he holds a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey and is suddenly taken back to that summer twenty years ago. He begins tape recording every book he read to Hanna and sends them to her in prison. It is through this act of passive compassion that Hanna teaches herself, after all these many years, to read and write.
So much of The Reader is about the journey one must take after the initial leap of the heart – always in an attempt to get back to those fleeting moments of joy and passion, of innocence – like one’s childhood home that really only truly exists in one’s memory, to which one may never return. That place becomes like a dream amongst the dark realities of life.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to acknowledge the depth and genius of Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader. After all, she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Hanna. I know I am not alone when I say I believe Kate Winslet is the best actress of my generation, and among the very select actresses in the history of the cinema to be truly great. Her sensitive, considerate portrayal of Hanna is at once moving and tender. The deep, flawed humanness Winslet pours into Hanna makes it effortless to feel empathy, and even a kind of sympathy, for her character – when, given any other circumstance one would most certainly feel nothing, even hatred or disgust.
Stephen Daldry, who teams up once again with screenwriter David Hare (The Hours), is a true master. His work here is subtle, never heavy handed, even during the scene in which Michael visits a concentration camp, alone, during Hanna’s trial. Daldry handles everthing with a type of masculine grace that elevates the written word instead of overshadowing it.
The final word: the story of The Reader is difficult. It is not the kind of film you will be able to watch over and again. It is an important film because it reflects us as we are, not as we would like to be. It reminds us that forgiveness is ultimately in our own hands and that, through love, anyone can be redeemed. The Reader is not to be missed.