THE READER (Film Review)


In director Stephen Daldry’s film “The Reader,” a fifteen-year-old boy named Michael Berg (David Kross) growing up in post-WW II Germany finds himself in lust with an attractive if mysterious thirty-six-year old woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslett, in an Oscar winning performance).

By day, Berg is a high school student and Schmitz a tram conductress. By evening, the two are lovers who strike up an unusual relationship, one in which Michael finds himself reading the classics – D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Anton Chekov’s The Lady With The Little Dog, Homer’s The Odyssey - to Hanna, who loves to be read to. “Let’s change the order, kid,” she says early on. “First you read to me, and then we make love.” Literature and lust define their secretive relationship, with the occasional bicycle ride into the summer countryside, paid for by Berg’s sale of his stamp collection.

But there is much more to this story.

The film is told as a series of flashbacks, of sorts.

We see an older Michael Berg, six years down the road, in law school at Heidelberg, in which he attends the trial of six former Auschwitz guards who allowed Jewish women in the camp to burn to death. One of the guards turns out to be Hanna, and Berg discovers that she is illiterate, and had the prisoners read to her. She is scapegoated for the crimes of the guards, and, accepting her fate, is sentenced to life in prison, while Berg refuses to visit her, ashamed of their past together.

As an adult, Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes) marries, has a daughter, but remains emotionally distant. He discovers the books he read to Hannah in his youth, and dictates their contents into a tape recorder, sending the tapes to Hanna in prison, who uses them to teach herself how to read. Intense, yes. And the film’s climax, which I won’t reveal here, is even more so.

Neither of the two main characters is all that likeable in this film, and the second half of the story unfolds too quickly for the viewer to feel any sense of sympathy for the situations our two protagonist find themselves in. But Winslett is solid in this story of truth, reconciliation, and justice, and Fiennes more than holds his own. And, while not a film for the faint of heart, “The Reader,” like “Lives of Others” and other historically contextualized films that explore the boundaries of human relationships under extreme conditions, is worth the time.