(Note: the following gives away a plot point central to this film, revealed about halfway through. Don’t read any further if you want to go in fresh.)
Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, raises a lot of interesting moral questions, but it doesn’t quite know how to appropriately answer them.
The first (and best) act of the film is an intensely erotic portrait of an affair between a 16-year-old boy and a (considerably) older woman. The second act takes place at a war crimes trial, and asks us what level of complicity in Nazi crimes is OK. The third act returns to the two characters, now much older, and the relationship. The film is mildly compelling and sumptuous to look at, but I found it unconvincing and potentially dangerous.
Germany, 1958: Michael Berg (David Kross) gets sick on the street (scarlet fever) and a kind woman cleans him up and helps him home. He returns to thank the woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), catches a glimpse of her undressing, and thus begins a purely sexual affair that lasts for the summer.
Hanna, however, seems to be more interested in having Michael read to her (she’s illiterate – if the reading didn’t illustrate that enough, a scene in which she stares, perplexed, at a café menu should.) Soon, the affair breaks down, Michael’s sexual curiosity satisfied, and (if one hasn’t read much about the film in advance) we wonder where this is going…
In 1966, Michael is at law school, studying under Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz, who’s excellent here). Rohl brings his class to a war crimes trial, and Michael is shocked to find Hanna Schmitz sitting there in the defendant’s chair.
Through some emotional testimony, we hear of Hanna’s past life as a concentration camp guard who, along with other defendants, selected prisoners to be executed. Incredibly, and unbelievably, Hanna is so embarrassed by her illiteracy that she takes full blame for leadership of the guards; the fact that she cannot write would have cleared her of some of it.
Years later, Michael (now played by a miscast Ralph Fiennes) sends Hanna some homemade books-on-tape, and she teaches herself to read while in prison. Having no one else to turn to, the warden contacts Michael in the hopes that he will help Hanna when she is released. There’s a powerful scene at the end, when Michael meets the daughter of a concentration camp victim (Lena Olin) who refuses to absolve Hanna of her sins.
Minor complaint: there’s an insulting montage halfway through as David ‘learns’ that Hanna is illiterate that plays out like the end of The Usual Suspects, when the detective (and the audience) realizes who Keyser Soze really is.
Of course, every audience member has known since the beginning of the film that Hanna cannot read, and David should have known – and even if he didn’t, there’s no logic to him finding out when he does.
Major complaint: the film asks us to feel sympathy for Hanna Schmitz, with countless close-ups of Kate Winslet’s sad, regretful eyes staring contemplatively into the distance.
It’s the ultimate testament to Winslet (who won an Oscar for her role) that some audiences may feel sympathy for this character, who, more than twenty years later, rationalizes that keeping a group of Jews locked in a burning church, rather than letting them out to potentially escape, was the right thing to do.
Nazis were people too, of course, but I find this line of thinking dangerous – at the very least, there are other characters more deserving of our sympathy.