A complex and unusually structured film that spans three time periods, The Reader is an intriguing journey – love story without love, war story without war, and ultimately a meditation upon our inability to normalise an understanding of what life would have been like for those living in Nazi Germany. The love story is a one-sided affair between a young boy of 15 named Michael Berg (David Kross) and an unimaginative – almost simple – woman working as a tram conductor in the late 1950’s in Heidelberg. She is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslett), who seduces Michael and then has him read to her as a ritual of their love-making. Michael – an innocent escaping the stiflingly loveless family he has grown up in – is devasted when he finds one day that she has disappeared.
The war story is of the trial of Hanna, some eight years later, when Michael – now a law student – is forced to watch Hanna convicted to life imprisonment for crimes she was involved in when she worked as a guard in Auschwitz. Although Michael has information that could help save Hanna, he is unable to act, a guilt he adds to his lost love to torture himself for the rest of his life. Years later, Michael (now Ralph Fiennes) tries to find some way to re-connect with Hanna and resolve both the part she played in Germany’s dark past and, by association, his involvement.
Both book and screen version of The Reader (the novel was written by Bernhard Schlink and adapted for the screen by David Hare) have been criticised heavily for encouraging audiences to identify with a woman convicted as a Nazi war criminal. Yet how long must we wait before a historical perspective of the Nazi era can be normalised? The film tries to imagine the decisions Hanna had to make as history unfolded – rather than retrospectively. At one point in her trial – certainly the key point of the film – she becomes bewildered at the questioning, and turns to the judge with a face devoid of all artifice to ask: “what would you have done?” There is no answer.
In a sense Michael is Germany, flirting briefly with the naive thrill of Nazism before it abruptly disappeared with the end of the war. And like Michael, the country remains damaged in its relationship with this affair – unable to honestly rationalise the period and preferring to take the easy way out with scape goats like Hanna.
If Winslett’s performance is a stand out, then so too is that of the young David Kross, who manages to capture the naïve exuberance of teenage love, the sudden loss of innocence and the creeping hand of guilt that turns him into a dour Ralph Fiennes. It’s an awkwardly structured film – and the introduction of Michael’s daughter Julia – an unnecessary diversion. Yet it is compelling viewing – forcing us to face some difficult truths about the the distortions of history.