The Reader is director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare’s (The Hours) adaption of the German novel "Der Vorleser" by Bernhard Schlink. They capture the very German-ness of the story by filming in Berlin and the German countryside and casting all German actors except for leads Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (with the film spoken in English). The story is both about the realisation of 50 year old Michael Berg (Fiennes) that he is emotionally reserved and unable or unwilling to share personal experiences, and the collective German guilt surrounding their actions during World War 2.
This guilt is demonstrated in the 1966 trial of former SS, female prison guards who, during the war, rather than let their Jewish prisoners escape, allowed them to burn to death in a country house. The guards are all found guilty with alleged leader Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) to serve the longest prison term. The crowd and judge are perhaps all too willing to focus their ire on these former guards as the ones to blame for the whole tragedy of that war. As one character observes however there were considerably more officers and guards in action during the war with very few arrests and convictions to show for it.
Watching the trial are law students including Berg as a young man (David Kross) and their lecturer (the always excellent veteran Bruno Ganz). “How we feel doesn’t matter,” says the lecturer. “Its what we do” he says.
Starting in 1958, the 15 year old Berg meets by chance the much older and lonely Schmitz. It becomes clear what Berg is to gain from their series of intimate encounters stretched over one summer. The studious young Berg begins to share his high school literature with Schmitz by reading to her. She prefers to be read to, she says. When Schmitz leaves suddenly it is supposed that Berg suffers an emotional withdrawal that is never dealt with until much, much later.
I did enjoy the scene after Berg’s first taste of love with Hanna. Suddenly the world was more vibrant, each sense more acute and Michael barely able to suppress a smile at the family dinner table.
Many years later Michael demonstrates, it seemed to me, a great act of love by sending tape recordings of him reading to the imprisoned Hanna. It seems an unusual thing to describe but in the context of how the story unfolds it is significant. I am sure his guilt toward her plays a part in his actions too but I will leave that for you to ponder.
Winslet won her Best Actress Oscar for this role and while I find it hard to believe it is her best role the Oscar of course rewarded her consistent performance over many roles. Not that Winslet does much wrong. She is contained in her performance and entirely convincing with the character not allowing her to express a great emotional range. Fiennes perhaps is more accustomed to emotional brevity as all his characters exhibit a similar reserve. The young Michael, Kross, is wide eyed and does not look out of place next to Winslet. It is a struggle to see the same man play both 15 year old and 23 year old but it was the least of my complaints. Overall I enjoyed the second half of the film more as the story and characters progressed through the ages. 3 out of 5.