‘The Reader’

Sex, books and the Nazi curse


Between Kate Winslet and the (as yet) little known David Kross, who shovel coal into the veritable steamship that is “The Reader” and keep it running, full speed ahead.

Kross (who had to turn 18 before he could start filming) throws himself into the role of Michael Berg, a postwar German boy in his mid-teens who enters into a complex, carnal affair with Hannah, a woman 21 years his senior — with fierce abandon and feverish ardor. Winslet, for her part, brings both nuance and a defiant audaciousness to the role of Hannah: a solemn, taciturn woman who works as a tram conductress in Berlin.

The Reader
Director Stephen Daldry
Run Time 124 minutes
Language English, German

One afternoon Michael gets off the tram and collapses in front of her apartment from scarlet fever. She takes him in, nurses him, and winds up sleeping with him. Winslet is mindful of the role she played in “Iris” as the young Iris Murdoch — easily seducing a love-struck virgin and almost without intending to, proceeding to enslave his soul. The only thing she demands from her young lover is that he read to her from his school textbooks (“The Odyssey” alternating with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” among others) before and after making love. Then one day Hannah disappears without warning or explanation, causing Michael to spend much of his youth torturing himself over what he could have done wrong. Still nursing his wounds, he encounters her again eight years later as a law student watching a courtroom trial. She is the defendant, a former SS guard responsible for executing 300 Jews in Auschwitz. As the hearings proceed, Michael realizes he is in possession of evidence that will lighten her sentence (as it is, she’s getting life imprisonment) but it will mean exposing himself and their affair before the jury.

Compared to the first half of the story when Hannah turns young Michael’s life on its head and shows him a whole other world (albeit one conducted mainly in her dark, dank apartment), the latter courtroom scenes are claustrophobic with repressed emotions and unspoken, undisclosed trauma. “The Reader” is not a Holocaust film per se — there are no scenes of Auschwitz atrocities or sepia-colored footage of Hitler’s soldiers on the march, but the story is replete with pain, humiliation and the unheard wails of agony.

Later, the point strikes home when the middle-aged Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) runs into a camp survivor in New York (a brief but powerhouse portrayal by Lena Olin) and she speaks the underlying theme line of the whole movie: “How could you live with yourself?”

For Michael, the guilt is two-fold: First, as a German citizen, tainted and burdened forever with Hitler’s crimes; second, as a lover for failing Hannah, in more ways than one. Never mind that Michael was all of 2 years old when the Third Reich collapsed; he still can’t allow himself the luxury of happiness, nor is he ready to trade in the memories of his first love for a little peace of mind.

“The Reader” is based on the novel (same title) by Bernard Schlink — the first German language work to make it into the New York Times Best-seller list.

Director Stephen Daldry teams up with writer David Hare (the golden combo of “The Hours”) to throw the hardball questions, avoid easy answers and delete the entertainment factor as much as possible. “The Reader” is as thorny and secretive as Hannah — a woman capable of giving great love and sexual pleasure but always with the air of resenting the reserves of her generosity. Winslet’s portrayal is defined by the despair born of her inner contradictions and the consequences of having to live with the memories of Auschwitz enveloping her like a death shroud. In her love scenes with Michael, she turns into a contained tornado of lust and passion but then she demands to be read, her eyes wander and she gives herself over to his narrative, intent in her listening. In Japan, “The Reader” is being touted as a love story, but it’s more the tale of two people who just could not “live with themselves” and each in their separate ways, meted out their own self-punishment.