The Reader (2008)
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
And the Oscar for Best Actress goes to… Kate Winslet! There is no doubt she’s had an incredible career so far, but can you believe that her performance in The Reader was her first Oscar win? I don’t believe that The Reader was her best performance, but she’s certainly paid her dues to receive a golden statue.
It could easily be confused that The Reader is a Holocaust movie, but it’s not. It’s merely a movie with a Holocaust backdrop, but the film is essentially about concealing secrets, following the crowd, and paying the consequences for your own actions.
The story jumps in and out from present day to flashbacks, an unnecessary gimmick for the plot. In West Berlin, 1958, a 15-year-old student Michael Berg (Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a toll taker on trams. She helps the boy out one afternoon when he’s sick and walks him home. He’s diagnosed with Scarlet Fever and is bed-ridden for months. As a thank you after he gets better, he brings flowers to her home. This sparks the frequent sexual encounters they embark on.
The affair is expressed in such a nonchalant manner that you just have to accept it, which is the proof that the film isn’t going to be about the sex. There is something more. Along with the sex, Hanna makes Michael read literature to her. This act seems as a lot more passionate and meaningful than their love-making.
Then one day Hanna disappears without a trace. Michael doesn’t know what happened to her and is left disturbed by her exit. Years later he’s studying law at a university and is surprised to see Hanna in a courtroom being tried for murder along with other Nazi prison guards. It is during the trial when it becomes clear to Michael about a secret Hanna was too ashamed to ever reveal. It also gives reason as to why she declined her promotion and took up a position as a prison guard in Auschwitz.
Here is where the real dilemma of the story lies. It’s clear, for Hanna’s own reasons, that she doesn’t want to reveal her secret. She’s willing to risk her life rather than exploit it. But Michael knows the secret as well and feels obligated to do something. The information surely will affect Hanna’s sentencing, but what’s the right thing to do?
His decision haunts him for the rest of his life and that’s how the rest of the movie plays out. He always had that extra weight on his shoulder afterward. Hanna meant a great deal in his life, but he felt excitement and discovery more than love. As for Hanna, he was really all she had. It’s hard to believe her disappearance didn’t have something to do with her feelings for him.
Through Michael’s adult days (played by Fiennes), it’s apparent he retained the pain that Hanna left him with. During the conclusion of the film, Michael visits a Jewish woman in New York. It seems he’s trying to give an excuse for Hanna’s actions, but he’s not. He’s really trying to understand the reasons for the actions of his past and find closure over it. I think he does find it at the end.
The Reader is rich with moral questions, like what would you do if you were in the character’s position? It’s quite easy to give an answer without really being in their shoes, but the more depth you provide yourself, the more you understand the decision is incredibly difficult. Would you have just stood there and watch as hundreds, thousands, millions were being killed? Morally, that’s a sin but they were ordered to do so and were carrying out their job. Though the answer seems simple, the act isn’t.
Overall, the movie achieves what it intends to do. It provides real characters in a dilemma that haunted the rest of their lives. It also raises questions whether or not it’s okay to sympathize for someone responsible for a number of deaths during the Holocaust. The movie might feel long for some since it never strays from its somber tone for two hours. Nonetheless, The Reader was very powerful and was packed with strong performances.