The Reader

The Reader movie poster


Direc­tor Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Bil­ly Elliot) and screen­writer David Hare’s adap­ta­tion of Bern­hard Schlink’s nov­el (pro­duced by the late Antho­ny Minghel­la and Syd­ney Pol­lack) stud­ies evolv­ing notions of Ger­man post­war guilt and cul­pa­bil­i­ty. Unfold­ing across three dis­tinct time peri­ods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Read­er hinges on a sig­nif­i­cant reveal in its mid­dle that recasts pre­vi­ous­ly seen events. This is not to com­pare it to more infa­mous exam­ples of stunt plot­ting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both eas­i­er to intro­duce with­out spoil­ing their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Nor­ton beat each oth­er up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis inves­ti­gate ghosts! With­out its cru­cial piece of infor­ma­tion revealed mid­way through, one would be forced to describe The Read­er as mere­ly a sto­ry about a young man who has an affair with an old­er woman.

In 1958 Ger­many, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a sum­mer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger Han­na (Kate Winslet). For him, the rela­tion­ship is heat­ed­ly emo­tion­al and erot­ic, but for the strange­ly dis­pas­sion­ate woman it seems to be about ful­fill­ing some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audi­ence, yet) doesn’t under­stand. Her sex­u­al advances are sud­den and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assig­na­tion. She bathes him harsh­ly and dis­pas­sion­ate­ly, cer­tain­ly not as a lover, or even a moth­er would her child. Han­na repeat­ed­ly rein­forces their age dif­fer­en­tial by insist­ing on call­ing him “kid,” but revers­es tra­di­tion­al age roles by hav­ing him read to her. As the sum­mer pass­es, she more overt­ly trades sex for read­ing. The high­ly reg­i­ment­ed Han­na has excelled at her job of sell­ing bus tick­ets, and faces a pro­mo­tion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abrupt­ly leaves town, cut­ting off the affair.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderIt says right here in my con­tract that I get a half dozen sex scenes with you…

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a sem­i­nar study­ing the Holo­caust, he attends the tri­al of sev­er­al accused con­cen­tra­tion camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Han­na. Despite man­ag­ing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapolo­get­i­cal­ly tells the truth, seem­ing­ly unaware of how doing so indicts her­self. Michael is hor­ri­fied to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infa­mous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The par­tic­u­lar crime she is on tri­al for is lock­ing hun­dreds of pris­on­ers inside a burn­ing church. Her more self-serv­ing cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own cul­pa­bil­i­ty.

One seem­ing­ly minor anec­dote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and pro­tect. The pris­on­ers sus­pect­ed her of being a les­bian, an exploita­tion they could under­stand, but she only asked in return that they read aloud to her. She would not pro­tect her girls for­ev­er; when one met their death, she would sim­ply select anoth­er girl. This anec­dote is under­stood by the court to be an inex­plic­a­ble quirk of an evil per­son, a mere mat­ter of char­ac­ter, but Michael real­izes the truth: she was, and remains, illit­er­ate. Michael is forced to recast the mean­ing of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her cap­tive, and she sim­i­lar­ly used him for her lit­er­ary edi­fi­ca­tion (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fan­tasied, love or at least sex­u­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion). Was he some­how to her like the girls she chose in the camp to enter­tain her? Did she do so out of self-inter­est, or to give them tem­po­rary com­fort before they died? Or some com­bi­na­tion of the two, a kind of trade­off?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderKate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Han­na could absolve her­self of at least one charge. By admit­ting her illit­er­a­cy, she could prove that she was not sole­ly respon­si­ble for cov­er­ing up the church inci­dent. But she mys­ti­fy­ing­ly choos­es to accept cul­pa­bil­i­ty rather than admit she can’t read. The mys­tery of the char­ac­ter is how any­one would be so ashamed of their illit­er­a­cy that they would effec­tive­ly con­demn them­self to a life­time prison sen­tence instead of the 3–4 years that her cohorts receive. Michael could help her case by com­ing for­ward, but does not. Is he pro­tect­ing his pri­va­cy, or effec­tive­ly choos­ing to pun­ish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, look­ing and sound­ing more and more like Lau­rence Olivi­er) opts to give her a sig­nif­i­cant present from afar. He begins with cas­sette tapes of him read­ing, and lat­er pro­vides the tools to help her teach her­self to read.

A key ques­tion is whether or not he has for­giv­en her for her crimes against human­i­ty, not to men­tion those against him: break­ing his heart and arguably sex­u­al­ly abus­ing him. Tech­ni­cal­ly, Han­na is a pedophile. Such crimes are usu­al­ly imag­ined as being per­pe­trat­ed by men. Cer­tain­ly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s rela­tion­ship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sex­u­al awak­en­ing. But Michael is in fact dam­aged; as he grows into an adult, his abil­i­ty to forge sol­id rela­tion­ships (either roman­tic rela­tion­ships with women or as a par­ent to his own daugh­ter) is stunt­ed. When he first met Han­na, he saw her as adult and sexy. But in prison she is reduced to a child­like state, learn­ing to read like a lit­tle girl. When the adult Michael comes to vis­it her, it is he that is the adult and she the trem­bling depen­dent look­ing up to him, even though she is chrono­log­i­cal­ly much old­er.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderThis rare spy shot from the set of The Read­er shows David Kross and Kate Winslet actu­al­ly clothed

Because The Read­er is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gor­geous and fre­quent­ly naked, one instinc­tive­ly wants to sym­pa­thize with her char­ac­ter Han­nah. But the fact of the mat­ter is that Han­nah is a mon­ster. What makes the char­ac­ter inter­est­ing is that she evi­dent­ly can’t see the enor­mi­ty of what makes her, for lack of a bet­ter word, evil. The emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal Han­na does not seem to be a woman of many pas­sions. She even seems sur­prised at first that the young Michael might be attract­ed to her sex­u­al­ly. When we meet her, she spends her joy­less life alone in a drab flat and mun­dane job sell­ing bus tick­ets. We lat­er learn that she approached her “respon­si­bil­i­ties” at Auschwitz with the same rigid­i­ty. She bald­ly admits to the events and what she did, not even real­ly hid­ing behind the stan­dard excuse of just fol­low­ing orders. In her mind, she seems to have been act­ing out of duty and respon­si­bil­i­ty to exe­cute (so to speak) the require­ments of her job. Han­na is so mad­ly rule-ori­ent­ed that she equat­ed the sub­ju­ga­tion of her pris­on­ers to being a kind of pro­tec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of some­one who is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly pro­tect­ing them­selves from con­fronting what they have done. Whether she com­part­men­tal­ized her emo­tions or didn’t have any to begin with, Han­na was able to func­tion as a cog in a giant atroc­i­ty machine, and to live on dis­pas­sion­ate­ly after­wards. She must not be alone, for count­less peo­ple oper­at­ed just like her, mak­ing the Holo­caust pos­si­ble. Han­na is inter­est­ing to com­pare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi com­man­dant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tor­tured by his attrac­tion to a Jew­ish woman that his job (and Ger­man soci­ety at the time) dic­tat­ed that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nev­er­the­less seems more able than Han­na to faint­ly per­ceive his deprav­i­ty.

Ralph Fiennes in The ReaderRalph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader’s sex scenes

Ron Rosen­baum took offense to the “Holo­caust porn” aspects of both the nov­el and the film for Slate Mag­a­zine. Is the sto­ry “redemp­tive,” as Rosen­baum accus­es? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illit­er­a­cy was some­thing to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enor­mi­ty of her crimes. It was eas­i­er for her to allow her­self to go to jail under the umbrel­la, in her own mind at least, of con­tin­u­ing to hide the much less­er of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and nov­el take the stance that illit­er­a­cy is a greater shame than enabling the Holo­caust; but rather Hanna’s intel­lec­tu­al defi­cien­cy is emo­tion­al­ly eas­i­er for her to cling to than admit to the obliv­i­ous herd men­tal­i­ty that allowed her to rigid­ly fol­low the rules and help effect the Final Solu­tion.

Rosen­baum also accus­es the film of por­tray­ing ordi­nary Ger­mans as being igno­rant of the Holo­caust. Per­haps Rosen­baum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Pro­fes­sor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), him­self a camp sur­vivor, holds a sem­i­nar with some of his best law stu­dents dis­cussing Ger­man guilt and cul­pa­bil­i­ty. I found it inter­est­ing to con­sid­er the first gen­er­a­tion of Ger­mans (rep­re­sent­ed by Michael) that grew up after the war, sur­round­ed by adults that lived through it and had vary­ing degrees of involve­ment (active or pas­sive). Some of the most rep­re­hen­si­ble char­ac­ters in the film (even more so than Han­na) are her com­rades that deny that any­thing hap­pened. The only char­ac­ter I can think of that may sup­port Rosenbaum’s accu­sa­tion is the war crimes judge pre­sid­ing over Hanna’s case. He would have the­o­ret­i­cal­ly been in a posi­tion of pow­er dur­ing the war, but is seen affect­ing out­rage at Hannah’s crimes.

Per­son­al­ly, I found Han­na to be an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter, which is not the same as sym­pa­thet­ic. I would describe her as infan­tilized and not even real­ly wor­thy of pity. My inter­pre­ta­tion of the sto­ry is that Michael chose to pun­ish her by allow­ing her to indict her­self on the wit­ness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palat­able excuse of keep­ing the secret of her illit­er­a­cy. She avoid­ed accept­ing her own war crimes in order to make it pos­si­ble to live with her­self. The adult Michael gifts her a belat­ed edu­ca­tion, which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an act of kind­ness. Per­haps he believes that stim­u­lat­ing her intel­li­gence and imag­i­na­tion might enable her to under­stand her guilt. If so, he utter­ly suc­ceeds, for she kills her­self. It’s ambigu­ous whether he sui­cide is about guilt or sim­ply over her fear of func­tion­ing in soci­ety after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the out­ward­ly cold Han­na is even capa­ble of hav­ing buried emo­tions and guilt is the fact that she is inter­est­ed in books at all. Oth­er­wise, it wouldn’t make log­i­cal sense that this cold, dis­pas­sion­ate per­son who seduces and fucks with as lit­tle emo­tion as she sells bus tick­ets, works in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, or allows hun­dreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for lit­er­a­ture.

Offi­cial movie site:

Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Read­er by Ron Rosen­baum

Buy the orig­i­nal nov­el by Bern­hard Schlink or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.