Years later, when Michael is at university to study law, his class attends a set of trials for Nazi war crimes. It is there that he sees that Hannah is one of the defendants, and through the course of the trial is confronted with not only what she did during the war, but what much of the generation before him had either done or allowed to happen. And through it all, he is haunted by a secret that could affect the trial and change the course of both of their lives.
I won't detail much of the rest of the story, for fear of dropping spoilers, although it should be noted that the movie was mis-marketed. Tag lines for the film bill it as a "thriller," when it is the farthest thing from a thriller. Mystery is a bit closer to the mark, but it's not much of a mystery either. The secret is revealed in obvious detail roughly halfway through the film, but that's little matter since it is a much more accomplished drama. And the revelation of the secret only makes both what preceded it and what follows all the more messy.
Throughout, the film is strongly held up by expert acting. Kross and Winslet are both fantastic, as is Ralph Fiennes, who plays an older Michael Berg recounting much of the events with flashbacks. The subtleties of the performances are what make the story and the problems resound. The confusion and excitement of Michael's early trysts quickly transform into the shame of a nation. And Hannah's involvement as a desolate and shamed party to war crimes ages her both physically and emotionally as the movie progresses.
The film asks a lot of questions for which it doesn't have satisfactory answers, and it leaves them ringing in the ears of the viewer. What makes someone a monster, and what is the delineation between a monster and merely monstrous acts? What if some of those acts are technically legal? Even if they are, aren't we obligated to a greater sense of morality or justice? And what if that justice also means revealing a secret that could lessen their crimes? What if they never ask for forgiveness to justify the relief? And even if they did, what if we're unwilling to do so?
That's the challenge with untidy cinema. It can often ask messy questions with still messier answers. And certainly with The Reader, you're left a bit more troubled and uneasy for the journey. But you're also thinking. The antagonist isn't completely vile, and a hero doesn't quite exist, and the whole affair paints humanity in varying shades of broken — some more obviously so than others, but none without their share of cracks. In this sense, the movie rewards repeat viewing; not that things suddenly become more clear, or the characters more easily pigeonholed, but they at least allow you to continue picking up pieces.