Kate Winslet has played any number of feisty, intelligent women over the years. Even when she plays a bored suburban housewife, in films like Little Children and Revolutionary Road, her characters tend to believe that they are somehow better and smarter than their neighborsand on some level, they often are. So it comes as a bit of a shock to see Winslet in a role where her character doesn't seem to be all that bright, really, and where her character ultimately wants to be regarded as anything but exceptional. But that describes Hanna Schmitz, the role Winslet plays in The Reader, a film that is partly about a woman who lives in post-war Germany, and whose past involvement in Nazi atrocities eventually catches up with her.
There is more to the story than that, though. Based on a novel by Bernhard Schlinkwhich was selected for the Oprah Book Club in 1999the film is also about a teenaged boy who has an affair with this woman despite knowing nothing about her, and then, after learning about her past, is forced to look at their relationship in a new and more disturbing light. While the bulk of the story is set in the late 1950s and 1960s, it is told from the point of view of Michael Berg when he is an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes), living in the 1990s and looking back on the fling he had with Hanna when he was just a teenager (David Kross).
The young Michael meets Hanna essentially by accident. First he gets sick on a tram, and she, being a tram conductor, comes to his aid. Later, after he has recovered from his illness, he returns to her apartment to thank her for her help, and he happens to catch a glimpse of her partly naked. She notices that he has seen her, and before long, on one of his subsequent visits, she contrives to get him naked too, which soon leads to an affair that lasts all summer long. (Incidentally, it is only after their third tryst that they even bother to tell each other their first names.)
Since Hanna is 36 and Michael is only 15 when they first meet (the actors were 32 and 17 when the film went into production), some people have complained that the film romanticizes the exploitation of minors. Others have defended the film by saying that the relationship would have been perfectly legal in certain times and places (does that include post-war Germany, though?), or, more absurdly, that boys cannot be exploited because they're too eager for sex anyway. Both sides, however, may be missing the fact that the film itself suggests that Michael's affair with Hanna goes on to have a negative long-term effect on his life, effectively undermining his ability to form lasting relationships with women his own age. So while the scenes between Hanna and Michael are certainly graphic, there is also a note of caution here.
The affair itself follows an arc that is all too typical: first the fiery passions, then the casual familiarity, and then finally the doubts, the jealousies and the arguments. There are some interesting wrinkles along the way, though. Michael is a student of literature and ancient languages, so Hanna asks him to read to herand he does, gracing her with everything from ancient epic poems to modern novels and plays, and even comic books like Tintin. One sign that their relationship is almost over comes when they get into a fight and, at the end of it, Hanna drops a rather large book on the bed and utters the simple command: "War and Peace, kid."
And then, one day, the affair is over. The story then jumps ahead several years, to a point when Michael, now in his mid-20s, is studying law at university. One day his professor (Bruno Ganz, whose credits include a voyeuristic angel in Wings of Desire and a suicidal Adolf Hitler in Downfall) takes the class to a court where several women are being tried for war crimes that they committed under the Nazi regimeand there, Michael discovers that Hanna is one of the women on trial.
Here is where Hanna's frailties really come to the fore. Before, during her affair with Michael, she seemed powerful and in control, but that was partly because she was so much older and more experienced than himand even then, there were moments when Michael began to assert himself in ways that caught Hanna off guard. But now that she stands accused of some of the worst crimes imaginable, she seems strangely uninterested in defending herself, whether against the prosecutors or her fellow defendants, the latter of whom try to pin as many of the crimes as possible on her once she begins admitting to at least some of them. Hanna insists that she is no different from the other women, that she was only doing what everybody else did, and she even asks the judge if he would have done anything differentlya question that betrays not defiance so much as a sort of cluelessness. Here and elsewhere in her appearances before the court, you get the sense that Hanna is too morally or intellectually blind to understand how her words will sound to other people.
Along the the way, Michael realizes he knows something about Hanna that could help her win a more lenient sentence from the judge. However, Hanna, who has no idea that Michael is in the courtroom, refuses to reveal it to the judge herself, apparently because, to her way of thinking, there are more shameful things in life than being considered a mass murderer. Should Michael reveal her secret to the judge? Or should he let Hanna keep her secret? This becomes one of the central dilemmas of the film, as does the question of whether Michael can ever reveal one of his own secretsnamely, his affair with Hannato the other people in his life.
The Reader has been categorized as a "Holocaust movie," like so many other films this month, but the Holocaust itself is long over by the time the story begins, and it isn't really brought to the viewer's attention until about halfway into the movie. Some would say the film has reduced the Holocaust to a mere backdrop, in a story that is ultimately about other things. But Schlink has always said that his story, deep down, is about the growing awareness of those Germans, born and raised after the war, who eventually had to face the fact that an earlier generation that they had come to know and love was guilty of some pretty horrendous deeds.
For most of those Germans, of course, the earlier generation in question consisted of their parents. But for Michael, it is Hanna, the lover who was old enough to be his mother. That makes this story more sensationalistic than it might have been otherwise, especially when the affair is depicted as graphically as it is hereand the sheer potency of those images threatens to overwhelm the rest of the story, just as the story itself threatens to eclipse the historical event that lies behind it all.
In the book, Michael says he cannot understand or condemn Hanna's crime, because to do one would be to fail to do the other. Moviegoers may find themselves in a similar situation: unable to dismiss the film outright, but also unable to put a finger on what the movie is really about, or how it should have been about it.Discussion starters
- One of Michael's professors says that characters are defined by the secrets that they cannot reveal to other people. How is Hanna defined by her secret? How is Michael defined by his? Do you have any secrets that "define" you?
- Michael says he cannot completely understand or condemn the crimes that Hanna committed during the Holocaust, because to do one would be to fail to do the other. Do you agree? Is it possible to understand why a person does something bad while also condemning the bad action? Is evil ever beyond understanding?
- When Michael reaches out to Hanna late in the story, is he "understanding" her? Is he "condemning" her? Is he doing neither of these things? Is reaching out to someone possible even when you have "condemned" what they do?
- Why do you think the story begins with an affair between an older woman and a teenaged boy? Is it just attention-getting sensationalism? Is there a deeper meaning? If so, what is it? Could the same points have been made in a story about a boy who learns a secret about his parents, instead of an older lover?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Reader is rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity, including full male and female nudity, most of them involving a woman in her 30s and a teenaged boy.
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