The Reader

The ReaderThe Reader
Stephen Daldry :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 2h03

Germany. 1958. The bright Michael Berg is only 15 when he meets a woman in her mid-30s, Hanna (Kate Winslet). She is an introverted, distant, sad character who takes advantage of the presence of the young man to start a sexual relationship. Their meetings are quickly transformed into a reading-for-sex exchange, which brings some emotion into Hanna’s empty life. But one day, she is gone without a word. Years later, when Michael is studying law at Heidelberg, he finds himself in a courtroom where he sees Hanna again: but this time, accused of an atrocious war crime.

The movie mostly brushes over Hanna’s exploitation of Michael, although her inappropriate relationship with the impressionable young Michael destroyed the rest of his emotional life, as is often the case with the abused young. He managed to build up a relationship years later which turned into a failed marriage, followed by an incapacity to be a real father to his daughter. But as the tragedy of his vacuous love life unfolds, he never points a accusative finger at Hanna, as he unhappily lives in the Stockholm syndrome. Partly because she has done worse. Much worse.

In contrast to the indifference the film shows with regards to the ruins of Michael’s life, the brutish Hanna is placed centre stage. Half way through the film we are already in the courtroom, to hear what she had done during the war. The proud, unsophisticated Hanna naively answers the questions as if from a confused post-war generation. As with the abuse of Michael, she is not only unrepentant, but seemingly oblivious to the damage she has done. The only reason we can find for her motivation, besides her cold simple character, is her covering up of her secret.

Hanna holds a secret, which is given to us already in the first quarter of the film, which determines most of her actions. This superficiality hidden behind her pride, she defends with her life. In fact, when pushed, we see that it is more important to her than her life itself, or, for that matter, the lives of others. Why this is so important to her, or from whence this comes is never answered. The unveiled secret is, by itself, too superficial to explain anything.

But there is another twist. As we too know her secret, as does Michael (although for such a bright young man it took him surprisingly long to figure it out). During the trial, he considers shedding her secret despite her explicit will to keep it hidden. In betraying her, she would have received a considerably reduced sentencing. In staying silent, she would live in prison with her pride intact. Michael respects her decision, which is very noble, but we still do not know why she is putting herself though all this, other than the most likely thesis that she is just stupid.

Hanna, who has spent her life with literature, is peculiarly enough incapable of any poetic words above the painfully simple. And that is what you are watching. I would not recommend sitting through two tedious hours of this only to be left depressed and empty at this unfinished, awful story. See what else is playing.


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