Film Review: The Reader

Gripping period drama centers on an upper-class Berlin teen’s furtive affair with a sexy but coarse tram worker. The liaison serves as a launch pad for a unique examination of German post-Holocaust guilt.

The first half-hour or so of The Reader, a consideration of the Nazi past across several generations of Germans from the ’40s to the mid-’90s, offers little more than beaucoup nudity, shtupping and reading in a dreary Berlin apartment. There will be plenty of fans for this heated, musty mix of worn books and lusty sex, but the story that will attract and ensnare sizeable art-house audiences kicks in later as threads of evil, accountability, collaboration and retribution unravel.

Events effectively unfold in nonlinear fashion beginning in 1995 with a brief snapshot of prominent lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) after a night of pleasure with another of his brief encounters. There’s the suggestion that the divorced attorney is emotionally challenged. A subsequent flashback to 1958, to the 15-year-old Michael (David Kross), begins to tell why.

On his way home from school, the young Berliner is taken ill and stumbles into the vestibule of a shabby tenement where he vomits. Resident Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 30-year-old tram conductor, comes to his rescue, helping Michael return to his comfortable but stern Berlin family.

Recovered from what was a bad bout of scarlet fever, Michael ventures back to Hanna’s building to thank her. Soon, Hanna draws virgin Michael into an affair that may recall the pairing of similar lovers separated by age, class and experience in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

The two make love fast, furiously and frequently, except for when Hanna, intrigued with Michael’s school-assigned books, has him read to her. The selections are rarified (Homer, Twain, Chekhov) and Hanna is enraptured. The affair, which also includes a lovely cycling interlude into the countryside, abruptly ends (Hanna disappears after being awarded a promotion) and Michael moves from high school to university and law studies.

Under the mentorship of law professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) in 1966, law student Michael attends a trial involving female Nazi guards at concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Michael is stunned to see that the key defendant is Hanna, who was a member of the SS and whose crimes involved making selections at the camps of who lived and who died and, on another occasion, keeping female prisoners locked in a church that was set afire so that hundreds perished.

Rose Mather (Lena Olin), a Holocaust victim who survived with her daughter Ilana, testifies, as she remembers Hanna. Other evidence introduced at the trial triggers Michael’s own memories of her and provide another revelation: Hanna, who was so eager to have him read to her and choose for her from menus, is illiterate.

Years later, Michael reacquaints himself with the imprisoned Hanna and sends her audio recordings which spur her to finally teach herself to read. In visits, Michael tries to come to terms with what she has done. Perhaps it is these conversations that most determine Hanna’s ultimate fate, if not her contrition (as evil is indeed banal).

While Michael is clearly disturbed by his intimacy with such a woman, he remains something of a conundrum. A part of him comes alive with screenwriter David Hare’s device to have him confide his terrible secret about Hanna to his daughter (Hannah Herzsprung). But what isn’t revealed is any questioning Michael might have done regarding his parents’ beliefs and activities during the Nazi period. In a wonderful closing scene, Michael travels to New York to bring some compensation to the grown-up Ilana (also played by Lena Olin), now a prosperous matron. But can such horrors be compensated?

Working from Hare’s chronologically scrambled and energized adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) delivers a handsome and thought-provoking package that will attract critics’ praise and droves of quality-seeking audiences. Daldry also draws superior performances from his cast, especially principals Winslet, Fiennes, Olin and young German newcomer Kross. A number of German acting heavyweights, including Ganz and Burghart Klaussner as the trial judge, lend invaluable support.