Special to The History Place
Most of us missed The Reader the first time around. The film, based on the novel by German law professor and crime writer Bernhard Schlink, opened only in art houses last year. Now that Kate Winslet won the Academy Award for Best Actress, the multiplexes are showing it. She deserved the award and you owe it to yourself to see the film.
In the mid-1950s in West Germany, a 15-year-old boy falls ill. A stranger, a woman in her mid-thirties assists him. Several months later, recovered from Scarlet Fever, the boy returns to the woman’s apartment with a bouquet. Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) initiates the boy into the world of grown up love affairs. He in turn becomes her reader.
At first their daily liaisons begin with lovemaking and end with reading. Later, the order is reversed on her command. He reads to her whatever he happens to be reading at school: The Odyssey, War and Peace, Goethe. Hanna is a streetcar conductor, fastidious in her personal habits, passionate in bed but tough as nails. The boy spends a summer with his mentor, learning more than a boy should know, except by clumsily discovering it with a girl of like age. If Hanna knows this, she doesn’t care.
One day, at the end of her shift, her supervisor informs her that her work has been exemplary and she is promoted into the office. Hanna packs her bags and disappears. The boy mourns his mysterious sudden loss and then gets on with his life. When we see him again, he is a law student at the University of Berlin, where his creator Schlink teaches today.
The boy, now nearly a man, Michael Berg, enrolls in a special seminar, the purpose of which is to observe and study the mid-sixties trial of six former concentration camp guards, all female. Only when the trial convenes and the prisoners are introduced does he discover that one is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz. Of the half-dozen defendants, only Schmitz is candid with the court. This leads her co-defendants to place the bulk of the blame on her, a burden she inexplicably lifts with little protest. As a result, while they draw light sentences, she is put into prison for life.
The renewal of the relationship between Hanna, the middle-aged prisoner, and Michael the man (and lawyer) resumes in a strange and rather remarkable way. Berg is masterfully portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, who has built his career upon the portrayal of alienated, disinterested characters (The English Patient, The Constant Gardener).
Cause and effect, guilt and intent, are difficult challenges in courtroom law. Schlink wrote, “For a long time I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development toward greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity…but the goal it finally attains, after countless disruptions, confusions, and delusions, is the beginning, its own original starting point, which once reached must be set off from again.”
Did Hanna cause Michael to be the cold fish he has grown up to be? Berg’s father, only briefly portrayed in the film but more fully developed in the novel, is almost equally detached--a philosophy professor more at home with Kant than his wife and children. So perhaps Michael would have turned out just the same, had he not been forced to stop and vomit in front of Hanna’s apartment that fateful adolescent summer’s day.
In the end, although he gives the aged Hanna a precious gift, he cannot give her what she needs to sustain her. Ironically--in the end--we are left believing that her final gift to him is the humanity that was previously always out of his reach.
Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.
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