The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)

29Mar10

When Michael Berg, a shy, reserved adolescent, comes down with fever and must stop in the rain on his way home to vomit on the pavement, a woman walks by and comforts him and ensures he is okay. After three months in bed recovering, Michael returns to where he had met her to deliver flowers in gratitude, and finds the worn out apartment in which she lives. The woman, played by Kate Winslet, is Hanna Schmitz, and Michael, going through that typical age of sexual discovery, is clearly attracted to her. She seduces him, and a sexual affair begins which lasts the length of the summer. Michael is never quite the same again.

Hanna’s character is mysterious, to say the least. Kate Winslet plays her with an almost permanent frown, and her mood swings are so violent as to upset the sensitive Michael on multiple occasions. As a curious young boy, his motivations are clear. But Hanna’s are much more complicated. We wonder why this older woman is so lonely as to seek what seems like solace in this lustful relationship. Nobody else ever comes up to her apartment, and we see Michael there a lot. We wonder why she is brought to tears by the singing of children in a countryside church. More than all, we wonder why she insists so much on being read to, and why literature affects her in such a profound way.

Then she panics at an outside café ordering food from a menu, and we realise she is illiterate, and her motivations murkier than we originally thought: she clearly doesn’t love the boy (or ‘kid,’ as she calls him), however much she means to him. He is genuinely infatuated with her, but she seems to love the prose that he reads from Homer and Chekhov much more than she loves him himself. One day she just abandons her apartment, leaving Michael in the dark. He wonders if it was something he said or did that clearly upset her in such a deep way.

We jump forward a few years. Michael is a little older now, and attending Law School. He chooses to attend seminars which focus on the interaction between morality and legality, and given this is west Germany, the historical application is naturally the Holocaust. At the time of his studies, war crime tribunals are in session for the concentration camp guards that managed the daily slaughterings, under governmental institutions that condoned their action. Michael’s class attends one such trial, intended to help them understand if the law can justly convict the guards for murder, given the state had authorised everything they did. This as an issue is emotional enough, and is compounded further by Michael’s visit to Auschwitz. The camera tracks the corridor in which shoes are piled up to the ceiling against both side walls for an unfathomable distance.

It hurts, and it hurts even more for Michael when Hanna stands up as a defendant and confirms she was one of the Auschwitz guards. The other defendants tell of Hanna’s literary fetish and use of the captives in reading to her, and all of a sudden that summer from years ago feels manipulative and a whole lot bitterer. Hanna justifies her actions in an absurdly cold way. Her job was to guard. She had to send Jews off to die to make room for the news ones. She had to keep 300 locked inside a burning church so chaos didn’t ensue when the doors were opened, even if this traumatised her for the rest of her life. But Michael knows by now that she can’t read or write. And when she confesses to writing the reports that imply she was the leader, rather than facing the shame of giving a sample of her nonexistent handwriting to test who completed them, Michael’s horrifically emotional and moral dilemma becomes clear. Whether it is primarily because he thinks she deserves the life sentence for murder anyway, or because he cannot face his own secret about their short lustful relationship is left untold. But for some reason Michael does not volunteer the information which could save Hanna, and she lives the rest of her life behind bars.

I do think it is beautifully ironic that The Reader becomes so emotionally confusing (but definitely emotional), in spite of its being based on such a heartless initial relationship. It continues to be equally touching as the older Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, begins to forgive, or at least to pity and regret. He records himself reading The Odyssey out loud, Hanna’s favorite, and sends her copy after copy of what we’d now call audiobooks, along with an accompanying tape player. She uses one of them, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Little Dog, along with a copy of the printed text, to teach herself to read.

Much has been made of The Reader’s focus on sex. It is indeed nearly the only thing we see Michael and Hanna do, and it is slightly unnerving that such a false relationship seems to bloom on this foundation. But the nature of each character – Michael’s youth and curiosity, Hanna’s isolation and resulting loneliness – makes it more than plausible, however hard it is to stomach. What is trickier to accept is what both characters are willing to do to deny their secrets, and how stoical both seem in their reactions to the consequences that follow.

I do not believe, however, that this element of either character is supposed to be entirely realistic, especially in Hanna’s case. By virtue of who she is, her actions are going to be alien and incomprehensible to us. She’s not the type of person anyone knows. She was one of the German citizens that became hypnotised and seduced by the sentiment of the time, before she then in turn entrances Michael herself. It is in this context that both characters are later silenced, and unable to stand up. It is tragic; a tale of two lives irreparably torn and twisted, to the backdrop of the darkest time in human history.

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