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Neustadt, West Germany, 1958. A 15-year-old boy clutches his overcoat as he walks along a cobbled street. Rain falls. The boy's rust-red cheeks signal he's unwell. He vomits in an archway. A woman getting off her workday shift on a trolley takes pity on him and washes his face.
When young Michael Berg returns to thank the woman after recovering from scarlet fever months later, he inadvertently catches a glimpse of her changing clothes ... and he runs away. Obsessed, he returns. And she seduces him, beginning a summer-long affair that will shape the rest of his life.
The woman, 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, is equal parts stern and sensual as she reveals all of her body but none of her soul to a boy who quickly grows addicted to their regular rendezvous. She asks one thing of him: that he read to her. And so he does. Homer's Odyssey. Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Chekhov's story, "The Lady With the Little Dog."
And then, as quickly as it began, their affair ends. Hanna vanishes without explanation, leaving her teenage paramour—who has confessed his love for her—devastated ... and utterly scarred.
Heidelberg Law School, 1966. Michael and some peers are invited by a professor to attend a war crimes trial of several low-level Nazi SS guards. Six women face justice. One of them is Hanna Schmitz. Michael learns that Hanna was a guard involved in a forced march of 300 women and children, almost all of whom perished in a church fire when the guards refused to unlock the doors.
As a young law student and later as an adult, Michael is forced to confront not only his own secret past, but the shame and guilt of a country trying to come to terms with its horrific misdeeds—symbolized by the stoic, taciturn woman who had pilfered Michael's innocence.
[Note: The following sections contain plot spoilers.]
The Reader's opening scene is not positive. But it does offer an important clue regarding the lifelong effect Hanna has had on Michael. In it, a naked woman casually asks an adult Michael (after spending the night with him), "Does any woman ever stay here long enough to find out what goes on in your head?" The remainder of the story illustrates that Michael's illicit relationship with Hanna has made it impossible for him to reveal the depths of his heart to any woman. He's gotten married, then divorced. Clearly, he's comfortable with sex but not emotional intimacy—exactly the way Hanna treated him. The film thus suggests that his torrid and utterly inappropriate and immoral affair with Hanna has crippled his ability for commitment or genuine love.
Significant philosophical questions are raised during Hanna's trial about who should be held responsible when an entire nation goes off the rails. Hanna is portrayed as a woman just trying to do her job well. At the same time, it's clear that's she's actively participated in monstrous, heinous crimes.
Only after the fact, it seems, does she ponder the reality of what her "job" really was. Michael visits her in prison and asks her what she's feeling. She spits, "It doesn't matter what I feel, it doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead." She's not shown to be evil or even malicious so much as unthinkingly dutiful and still struggling to come to terms with her actions decades after her dark deeds were done.
Under examination, Hanna confesses to writing a letter detailing what happened to the 300 people in her charge. Michael knows she's lying and hints at that to his professor. He, in turn, tells Michael that he's duty-bound to report any new evidence, regardless of how it might influence the case. "What we feel is utterly unimportant," he says. "It only matters what we do."
Classroom conversations between Professor Rohl and Michael's peers also explore hard ethical questions about Germany's guilt and responsibility in the wake of the Holocaust.
Michael journeys to a concentration camp to see it for himself. A devastating, powerful and silent scene shows him walking through the barracks, the showers, the furnace rooms and—most hauntingly—a long room filled with thousands and thousands of shoes.
Hanna bequeaths all of her estate (7,000 marks) to the sole survivor from the group of prisoners she led. The Jewish woman wants nothing to do with Hanna's money because she believes accepting it might somehow be equivalent to granting absolution. So she tells Michael to do with it as he will. He says he'd like to give it to a Jewish foundation for literacy.
The film ends with Michael taking his adult daughter, Julia, to Hanna's grave and telling her the story of this secret part of his life. The conclusion perhaps implies that Michael's decision to confess his lifelong secret will unburden him to love better in the future.
Michael and Hanna go for a bike ride and end up at a church where children are singing a Latin hymn. She sits with tears in her eyes as she listens. Only later do we learn why she's crying: because she was responsible for the deaths of women and children in the other church.
Romantic love gets compared to heaven.
The first hour focuses almost exclusively on Michael and Hanna's sexual relationship. Multiple, graphic sex scenes include full frontal male nudity, breast nudity and images of both Michael and Hanna's naked backsides. One brief, shadowy shot obliquely reveals Hanna's pubic hair as she gets dressed.
The camera watches as Hanna talks Michael through the process of sexual contact, teaching him what to do. Michael repeatedly kisses her bare hip, and they kiss and embrace frequently. Hanna swims while wearing a see-through bra. The two bathe together repeatedly. It's illustrative of how utterly focused on sex their relationship is that Michael doesn't learn Hanna's first name until their third tryst.
Oxymoronically, when Michael reads a ribald section of Lady Chatterley's Lover to Hanna, she tells him it's disgusting and that he should be ashamed for reading it aloud.
Apart from Hanna and Michael's relationship, there are other scenes that include sex and/or nudity, too. In college, Michael looks through a dorm room window and glimpses a naked man atop a woman. Michael has intercourse with a classmate. (There's breast nudity.) The rear and side of an unclothed woman Michael spends the night with are exposed. Hanna's naked torso is shown from the side when she showers in prison.
Beyond the courtroom discussions of inhumane war crimes, it's implied that Hanna commits suicide by hanging herself. (We see her begin to climb onto books stacked on a desk.)
Michael tries to kiss Hanna roughly during an argument, and she slaps him. Protesters at the trial ask her why she didn't kill herself.
Crude or Profane Language
A protester calls Hanna a "Nazi whore." Characters say "h---" at least twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Michael smokes in college. So does a young man outside a church. Revelers at a party drink. Michael and his daughter drink wine at a meal. And Michael has a glass of wine by himself.
Other Negative Elements
Michael lies to his family about where he's spending his time. They know he's lying, but they don't know what's happening to him.
Some films come freighted with the baggage of a successful book. And some books, in turn, offer a controversial exploration of an entire culture's collective shame and guilt. The Reader does both as it translates German author Bernhard Schlink's popular 1995 tome of the same name to the big screen.
To say that The Reader is an odd film is an exercise in understatement. If the first half plays like a story flirting with an NC-17 rating for its explicit sexual depictions involving an underage character (not, technically, the actor; filming of the scenes in question was held until David Kross turned 18 in July 2008), the second half feels like a crime procedural devoted to unearthing some of the weightiest issues of generational guilt, war and punishment imaginable.
"The book is of huge historical significance in Germany," says director Stephen Daldry. "It is the singular novel addressing the problem of 'How do we continue after what we have done?' ... This is a film about truth and reconciliation."
OK. That may be. But how does one justify the sex that fills so much of the story's setup? Kate Winslet, who portrays Hanna, rationalizes that it's critical to the plot: "There is a lot of nudity in the beginning. But it's 100 percent justified by the story."
For reasons that should be painfully obvious considering the issues of statutory rape and onscreen sex and nudity, I'm not in the least convinced.
Neither is film critic Charlie Finch, who writes for several New York newspapers and magazines. "It trivializes the Holocaust," Finch says. "What is repellent is how [director Stephen] Daldry uses Kate Winslet's nubile body to create sympathy for a repellent character. Daldry avoided showing the horror of her crimes—instead we have Holocaust chic which is all about sex, not mass murder."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ralph Fiennes as Michael Berg; David Kross as Young Michael Berg; Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz; Bruno Ganz as Professor Rohl; Karoline Herfurth as Marthe; Hannah Herzsprung as Julia; Lena Olin as Rose Mather and Ilana Mather; Alexandra Maria Lara as Young Ilana Mather
Stephen Daldry ( )
The Weinstein Company