A complex and unusually structured film that spans three time periods, The Reader is an intriguing journey – love story without love, war story without war, and ultimately a meditation upon our inability to normalise an understanding of what life would have been like for those living in Nazi Germany. The love story is a one-sided affair between a young boy of 15 named Michael Berg (David Kross) and an unimaginative – almost simple – woman working as a tram conductor in the late 1950’s in Heidelberg. She is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslett), who seduces Michael and then has him read to her as a ritual of their love-making. Michael – an innocent escaping the stiflingly loveless family he has grown up in - is devasted when he finds one day that she has disappeared.To me The Reader is a story of various levels of abuse and its repercussions, both on the cosmic scale of the Holocaust and on the private scale of Hanna's relationship with Michael. Hanna was a professional abuser (and murderess). I have to say that I agree with Thelma Adams completely (via Catherine Delors) when she says:
The war story is of the trial of Hanna, some eight years later, when Michael – now a law student – is forced to watch Hanna convicted to life imprisonment for crimes she was involved in when she worked as a guard in Auschwitz. Although Michael has information that could help save Hanna, he is unable to act, a guilt he adds to his lost love to torture himself for the rest of his life. Years later, Michael (now Ralph Fiennes) tries to find some way to re-connect with Hanna and resolve both the part she played in Germany’s dark past and, by association, his involvement.
I'm curious about the pass the disturbingly intimate relationship between a mature woman and an adolescent boy seems to be getting in David Hare's adaptation of Bernard Schlink's novel, as directed by Stephen Daldry. Pivotal to the romantic tragedy is the passionate post-war affair between a 36.year-old female German tram conductor Hanna (Winslet) and a dewy 15-year-old virgin Michael (David Kross)....
Ultimately what's curiously disturbing about The Reader has little to do with Nazis. As Michael grows up and Ralph Fiennes replaces David Kross in the role, the adult suffers from the kind of failure at mature sexual and intimate relationships - with his wife, daughter, and mother - that often typifies abuse victims. He's distant and at least his daughter believes the culpability is hers; he doesn't love her because of who she is, not his adolescent secret. When we first see the adult Michael, he's having an affair of the bed - but clearly not of the heart - with a gorgeous woman nearly young enough to be his daughter. And, as the mistress complains that Michael won't let her in to his life, he clearly can't wait until she leaves his apartment so that he can be alone with himself and his memories. It's textbook abused behavior - and all the movie's ambiguities about Nazis, hidden secrets, and admitting culpability don't fully address the fact that Michael is both the victim of abuse, and lost in his continued love for his abuser, because nothing since has come close to that intensity. Emotionally, he stopped growing at 15.
Michael is a victim of abuse, and his abuser just happened to have been a luscious retired Auschwitz guard. You can call their tryst and its consequences a metaphor of two generations of Germans passing guilt from one to the next, but that doesn't explain why filmmakers Daldry and Hare luxuriated in the sex scenes -- and why it's so tastefully done audiences won't see it for the child pornography it is.
I found the seduction scenes to be sickening. Hanna abused young Michael by becoming physically involved with a boy young enough to be her own son, and then she psychologically abused him as well with her coldness and manipulation. He never got over it but was haunted by the abusive relationship all his life, unable to see it for what it was, and unable to ever again emotionally connect with women, including his wife and daughter.
The protagonists in the film seem to be unable to see the great crimes committed, but rather focus instead on Hanna's illiteracy. On one hand she is cruel as only a complete imbecile can be cruel, and on the other hand she delights in Homer and Chekov, which shows she has a brain somewhere. But the deliberate manner in which conscience is blinded and put to rest, by the German people, by Hanna, and by Michael, is something which still goes on all the time about some of the major issues of our own day. I am thinking particularly of abortion. Everyone knows about it, but most of us look the other way, lulling our consciences to sleep.
I am left pondering many questions. Did Hanna kill herself because she finally felt the weight of her crimes, or because Michael was cold and reserved when he visited her in prison? And what was the point of Michael ultimately telling his daughter about his sordid and sick relationship with Hanna? Was it so he could psychologically connect with his daughter at last? A strange ending to a strange yet thought provoking film. Share