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