Interesting. Like many films of late, I was unsure of what to expect with this one. The only thing I knew going in was that it is set in post-WWII Germany and it won Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe (for Supporting Actress). There I was, entering a darkened theater for the third time of the day. Yes, it was a long day with The Reader coming in the wake of Frost/Nixon and Revolutionary Road. As I walked down the long hallway I questioned if I was up to the task of three heavy dramas in a row. I answered myself in the affirmative. Besides, I needed something to help shake me of the suburban nightmare of Revolutionary Road.
As The Reader opens we are introduced to Michael Berg (David Kross). He is on his way home from school and he does not look well. In fact he feels downright sickly. He gets off the bus and begins walking through the pouring rain. He is unable to make it to his home and takes shelter in the entryway of an apartment building. Crouching against the wall, he's discovered by Hanna (Kate Winslet) as she returns home from work. See takes pity on the boy and takes him upstairs to get him cleaned up before taking him home. Being a fifteen-year-old boy, he is intrigued by the older woman, whom he spies putting on her stockings.
Months later, after recovering from a lengthy illness, Michael returns to Hanna's in order to thank her for her kindness. When he arrives, he discovers that she too is intrigued by him. The two embark on a months-long affair. He goes to her after school and they have sex. She becomes something of a mentor to the young boy who gains increased confidence from the relationship. We also learn that she enjoys being read to. Their agreement goes from just the physical interactions to include him reading his book assignments to her, much to her delight.
One day Hanna up and disappears. This moment weighs heavily on Michael, who is completely unprepared to deal with the wound that this opens up. This takes him from the wide open world before him and causes him to slam the door, essentially closing himself off from ever being able to connect with anyone else again.
Some years later Michael is a law student and his class is taken on an excursion to an actual courtroom to see a trial. On trial is a group of former SS guards from a women's camp. As one of the women is called to answer to her story, Michael's ears perk up. He recognizes the voice. It is Hanna. As she tells her story of being a guard and the deaths that were the result of her actions, the wounds in Michael's psyche are reopened and facts of both of their pasts are brought to light. These facts mull around in Michael's head and knowledge that he possesses could be a deciding factor in her sentencing. Her guilt is all wrapped up, but if certain facts came out they would change the complete direction of the case.
He chooses to remain silent and must live with this fact for the rest of his life, as must she. They have hurt each other in ways that few will likely ever understand. There is moral ambiguity, personal responsibility, and the question of redemption all rolled into this tale of sexual expression, illiteracy, and the Holocaust. Yes, that does sound a little odd.
The film is a good one that is bolstered by fantastic performances. It is fascinating; I watched this film and was unsure exactly what it was about. Was it Michael's sexual awakening and subsequent shuttering? Perhaps it is about German guilt — are there varying degrees? Perhaps it is about illiteracy? It speaks to all of these things, but is never terribly thorough in its treatment of any of it; however, the performances are utterly captivating and the themes fade into the background of the story.