Among the several controversies in this movie are: Can there be redemption for a woman, who has been a concentration guard in the past and 14 years later stumbles into a serious physical relationship with a precocious and bright 15-year-old? That these relationships are wrong, or even oddly right, is irrelevant: they occur.
Somehow, the reverse situation, with Lolita syndromes, is disgusting, but with older women with boys or young men, it seems to betray the moral rectitude of femininity, and seems unlikely. In The Reader, the ersatz predator is a woman rather than the man of the big-bad-wolf stereotype.
Some believe this to be another Holocaust film, but that is only the backdrop, clearly not its epicenter. The centerpiece is a trial; evidence; false testimony; and most disturbingly to me, withheld testimony. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks the memorable phrase: “It is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.”
Silence is not golden, but lethal and indicting.
In her Academy Award-winning performance, Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, an emotionally stunted and remote woman whom we meet as she helps a feverish boy, who collapses from scarlet fever on the street. (The novel had the young Michael Berg ill from hepatitis, an utterly un-passionate condition, and scarlet fever may point to the scarlet letter of Hester Prynne: adultery.)
The time is post-war Germany in what feels like 1948 but has to be 1958. Hanna guides Michael Berg (David Kross) from her door-step to the hilly cobblestone street where he lives with his family. After the illness and protracted recovery, he sweetly brings a bouquet of flowers to the kind lady who escorted him home.
This is David Kross's first film, and he did not speak English before being cast into this challenging role. His acting carries most of the movie with extraordinary range for a neophyte. His adolescent moodiness and ennui were perhaps familiar recent memories to him, but his passion and lust for an older woman, with emotions ranging from attraction, to hurried business, to professions of love, to plotting trysting trips to the country on bicycles funded by a sold prized stamp collection, were tributes both to the screenplay, but also the sensitivity of this young star.
Hanna sends him to the hall so that she might change for work, and they walk together. The ajar door provides a glimpse of languorous female legs being drawn into hosiery with fumbled clasps and garter snaps. Lust and passion brews.
When Michael is caught ogling through the slit of the door, he runs red-faced down the stairs to his home. Kate Winslet's Hanna has reason to have shut-down emotions, and plays the numb, mechanical seductress with a flame to the willing moth of young Michael. On his return visit, she orders him to bring up buckets of coal for the water heater. He returns covered with soot, and he must bathe or be bathed before he returns home.
It does not take much to coax him from his soiled clothes. The agreement is initially to read, at first his school assignment, The Odyssey, and they embark on quite a journey, as Penelope entertains many lovers waiting for Odysseus' return.
Gears shift, and the reading includes Lady Chatterley's Lover, which she ironically finds disgusting, and then Chekov's Lady with the Pet Dog, a story composed in 1899 while he rested with tuberculosis at Yalta. The plot is of adultery leading to a found true love, but Chekov is no ordinary moralist, believing that it is more important to understand the adulterer than judge him or her.
The trysts and readings continue passionately, including the bicycle trip to the countryside until Hanna is offered a promotion from a mere tram conductor, and mysteriously abandons her opportunity as well as apartment and young lover without notice or hint of feeling.
Ralph Fiennes plays the older, more withdrawn if not more mature, Michael Berg cameos in the first half of the movie, and appears after the younger Michael submerges himself despairingly in the lake.
The evolution of Berg as played by Kross into the Fiennes version is a weakness. Fiennes is always somewhat passive and contemplative, whereas the younger Berg is vibrant, curious, and determined, even in the despondency after Hanna's disappearance. Fiennes's Berg is less interesting than the adolescent or graduate school-aged Berg portrayed by Kross, an evolution that seems stilted and untrue.
The trial scenes evoked Judgment at Nuremberg for me, with Spencer Tracy playing a judge who was clearly not the first choice, and more escaping a troubling event in his own professional life. Burt Lancaster plays the chief judge who did not question the morality of the dubious Nazi laws.
Was this a judgment of individuals or the entire German people? Hanna Schmitz has been charged with six other women, all of whom were camp guards, who watched 300 prisoners burn to death in a barricaded church 20 years earlier.
Like the witches in Macbeth, her former accomplices claim she was the leader, she was the author of the handwritten report. She denies it vehemently until they ask for a writing sample; she then timidly and without emotions admits authorship and fault. While appearing more bewildered than regretful, she testified honestly despite the calumnies of her co-defendants.
Berg watches and reacts; his Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) has prepared him and the class to not prejudge the case, but to apply the law as it was in 1944 by its letter and merits. Spurred by the testimony, Berg inquires of him whether he had an obligation to testify if he knew exculpating facts. He makes an effort to visit Hanna, whom he has not seen since their affair 10 years earlier, but has a change of heart, aborts his visit, and remains silent.
The choices and how they influence the lives of the characters motivate the conflicts intrinsic to Berg and Hannah, each of whom harbors shameful secrets that each guards irrespective of consequences. Winslet is marvelous throughout, and Kross's debut performance foretells a rich career for this talented young man.
The resolution of the court case, the fate of Hanna Schmitz, and how Michael Berg resolves his issues with her and himself are the movie's dénouement. The overarching issue is choice: to do good or evil, or to keep quiet and hide. Ultimately whether there can be forgiveness for shame and indefensible acts, or violations of taboos echo through the movie.
The conclusion has what has been a widely discussed meeting with Berg and the daughter of a survivor of the church fire, now a comfortable New Yorker and Holocaust survivor herself. The meeting has an odd imbalance, with Berg playing a meek older German attorney, completing the final wishes of Ms. Schmitz meeting Ilana Mather, who remains harsh and utterly disinterested in explanations that might shed light, or perhaps even understanding.
The moment is memorable for what is offered, what is kept, and what is rejected. The pundits weigh in on the righteous anger, and I thought of Chekov's lack of moral judgment and humble attempt at understanding. Chekov was a physician like us as well as a dramatist and short story teller, and so we too need to guard against imbuing our interactions with patients especially with too much moral certitude without attempting to find the nuance and understanding.