2008. Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross. Directed by Stephen Daldry.
The secrets we keep from each other, with varying degrees of shame, is the theme that seems to run through The Reader, the adaption of the Bernhard Schlink book and last year’s Oscar nomination vehicle for Kate Winslet. It is a sad, quiet story that imagines an intense, brief love between two people neither can handle. Winslet is deserving of the Oscar win, especially for her work in the second act of the movie, but her young co-star nearly outdoes her.
Ralph Fiennes portrays the adult Michael Berg, whom we quickly learn has shallow relationships with women, even a chilly, long-distance relationship with his daughter. Michael is reminded of himself as a younger man (David Kross) — in a very nice transition — who, as a 15-year-old, came down with scarlet fever and was helped initially by a mysterious woman. After recovering, he sets out to thank her, finding the emotionally direct Hanna Schmitz in her threadbare apartment. Before leaving, he glimpses her in a state of undress, and runs out. He’s back soon though, anxious to leave his boyhood behind, and she is once again willing to help him.
Michael’s home is orderly and calm, but stiflingly cold, and escapes again and again to Hanna’s apartment and the warmth of her bed, several times before even knowing her name. And she seems to prefer it that way. Soon she asks him what he’s studying. He reads his lessons to her, then some of the books he has brought, even comic books. He reads to her in the afterglow of their torn-apart bed, then she begins demanding a chapter or two before they get to it. He becomes obsessed with her, and when she realizes how he feels, she breaks off the relationship by simply packing up and moving away without a word.
Michael is destroyed but goes on, a brooding child who has had a bitter taste of adulthood. (Kross really is amazing in this difficult leading role, allowing Michael to age from an impulsive and immature boy to a distrustful, brooding law student.) He ends up in a class led by Bruno Ganz (whom I haven’t seen since Wings of Desire) focused on the trial of several former SS guards responsible for the deaths of Jewish workers killed in a fire. The trial has resulted from the publication of a successful book by a camp survivor. Here, Michael is reunited with Hanna, looking harried and desperate as one of the defendants — one who is increasingly taking the lion’s share of the blame. As the trial progresses, Michael realizes one of the secrets she kept from him, and he is torn by the decision of whether to share it.
I’m not going to share it, or the way the dominoes fall as a result of Michael’s decision. Although the film is bleak and hopeless — you’re either going to watch it or you’re not, so I couldn’t possibly dissuade you — I respect the film for taking the difficult and much-more-interesting route through the rest of the story. Hanna Schmitz is an unlovable character, maybe even an unfeeling monster, but she is unmistakeably human, so much a product of her flaws and environment as Michael is a product of his. And Michael may be the only one to see this. The penultimate scene (the one that takes place in New York) accomplished the near-impossible — I began to feel that victim had treated victimizer unfairly. This is Michael’s challenge, as well.
The grace of the final scene, in a gloomy drizzle, made me hopeful — hopeful that, despite whatever I might do in my bleak, bitter life, others might put off judging me until they’ve read the entire story.