Film review by: Witney Seibold
How much you will like Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” I think, weighs directly on how much you understand (and perhaps relate to) Hanna Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet. The film is about a young man named Michael Berg (David Kross at 15-19, Ralph Fiennes as an adult) who as a teenager in the 1950s in Germany, almost literally stumbles into a passionate sexual affair with the lonely Hanna. Hanna takes up his whole life and imagination. He reads to her after long bouts of enthused sex. He neglects his peers in favor of sex with this older woman (and I can’t say I blame him). Hanna seems constantly distracted, and almost struggles to relate to human beings and perform her job as a ticket girl on a street car. The, without warning, she vanishes from his life.
She resurfaces when he’s a law school. He attends a trial, and finds that she is a defendant. He does not contact her, but watches in horror as he learns that, during the war, she was a prison guard at a concentration camp. The State is trying to pin the death of several hundred people directly onto one of the guards. Hanna does not seem to possess the wherewithal to defend herself, and it’s looking like she’ll get the brunt of punishment. Why is she not defending herself? Why is she so guarded? It’s not much of a secret to reveal that all this time, she’s never known how to read.
Winslet won an Academy Award for playing Hanna, and it’s no wonder (although I was pulling for Melissa Leo). Hannah is a woman who has strong desires to be part of the world, to relate to people, and make a romantic and sexual connection with someone, but is constantly walled off, partly by her illiteracy, but more by her need to keep the fact of it secret. She is not a mysterious seductress of 15-year-old boy fantasies (well, maybe a little), but a perpetually unconnected and embarrassed human being who is tough to figure out. Because of these qualities, she made some rather horrifying decisions that led to peoples’ deaths. And, unlike Björk’s character in “Dancer in the Dark,” she is not stubbornly sticking to her guns through a misguided sense of cruel martyrdom, but through a genuine need to hold on to her withering pride.
Oh, and, not to shortchange him, David Kross was actually very good in the lead role. Many critics and Academy members seemed to forget that he was in this film, and I must point out that he was also excellent as a confused boy who comes of age. First physically, then emotionally, then ethically. Also very good was Bruno Ganz in the small role of Berg’s law professor.
While tangentially touching on WWII themes, “The Reader” spares us any actual war footage, and has no fetishistic scenes of Nazi torture. It’s about the ripples of the war, and about the insecurity of Hanna at the center. It becomes a little turgid, and perhaps even preachy near the end (War and Peace? Come on.), but it’s a fascinating film, and the acting is terrific.
N.B. Lena Olin appears in two roles.