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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Reader (review)

Between the Lines

“The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature,” says a schoolteacher as this delicate and difficult film opens, so you know: Aha. Secrecy. You already might have guessed, from the title — The Reader — that there was literature involved. That’s tough enough to pull off: a movie about reading. People sitting around looking at books? How does that become cinematic? But this is tougher: a movie about secrets. Some of the secrets we’re privy to from the start, some we learn as the film goes on… but some are secrets we never understand, and maybe can never even hope to understand. They’re about the things people never tell one another at all.

A movie about people not talking to one another? How does that work?
Beautifully, actually, in this case. Because, for one, the act of reading here is its own kind of secret between people, not something passive but something active. It’s postwar Berlin, and 15-year-old Michael Berg falls into an unlikely affair with a woman twice his age, Hanna Schmitz. There’s something juvenile about Hanna, although not in an unappealing way — Kate Winslet (The Holiday, Flushed Away) is extraordinary as a woman who is both brusquely adult and childishly vulnerable at the same time — and it places her more on an equal footing with Michael than you might expect. They keep their affair a secret, of course, but this does not feel like a relationship that’s inappropriate in any way. (That’s partly due, too, to German actor David Kross as the young Michael: he’s barely older than his character but evinces a riper wisdom that radiates off the screen.)

Not inappropriate, except, maybe… Hanna likes to be read to. Not that there’s anything necessarily immature in wanting to be read to, but there’s something a little bit demanding about it on her part. She likes fucking this handsome, energetic, and enthusiastic young man… but she really likes it when he reads to her. All sorts of stuff, everything from the Odyssey to Mark Twain. Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) keeps the sex stuff frank and straightforward and unaffected, but what feels just a little bit dirty is her insistence on his reading to her all the time.

But that’s only the beginning of their story, and where it spins from there involves other secrets, big and small, secrets that stay almost as mysterious by the film’s end. The time and place — postwar Berlin — might tell you that some of those secrets will involve the German people and their ongoing coming to terms with the horrors of World War II. Michael has since gone on to law school — his affair with Hanna having ended years earlier as abruptly as it began — but he encounters her again, and questions about what she did during the war come to the fore. Questions about what everyone did during the war haunt The Reader: as one of Michael’s fellow law students asks a professor as the students attend a war-crimes trial, “Why didn’t you kill yourselves when you found out?” (about what was going on in the camps, that is). Unasked is the question, though it, too, hovers over the film, and remains unanswered at the end: How do the people who came after that — like Michael — deal with those who committed terrible crimes?

Can you forgive, even if you can’t forget? Can there ever be a justifiable motive for terrible crimes? The Reader — David Hare adapted Bernhard Schlink’s novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — offers no answers, and doesn’t even offer the comfort of suggesting that answers will ever be found. For years later, we meet Michael again — now played by Ralph Fiennes (The Duchess, In Bruges) — as he reconnects with Hanna again. We’ve been getting glimpses of the adult Michael all along, in fact, but it’s not till the end that we realize that the longtime secret of his onetime relationship with Hanna may be the only thing he has. Will his sharing of that secret change anything for him? Or should some secrets never be revealed? We get no answer to that, either.


MPAA: rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • lythea

    It just occurred to me that this movie is pretty similar to Atonement. Both are about how the stories we tell, the truths we share or don’t share, can affect lives. And dealing with similar moments in time too. And I wonder why I prefer this one so vastly…

  • MaryAnn

    Interesting comparison. If I had to pick one over the other, though, I’d go with *Atonement.*

  • naoma

    I wondered why they did not “age” the fellow who
    played the young Michael as they did for the Kate
    Winslet role? Fiennes looked nothing like the young Michael. I did not like the movie.

  • MaryAnn

    The actor playing young Michael has to age only a few years over the course of a few years when none of us change very much (late teens to 20s).

    Was it only the lack of aging that made you dislike the movie, naoma?

  • Chris

    I must say this movie was very slow and painful to watch but the most important thing is that it has about the best Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reference ever….

  • naoma foreman

    A Clarification for my REVIEW ABOVE: (to MaryAnn)

    What I meant was that the actor that played Michael as a young man should have also played him as the adult. Fiennes looked nothing at all like Michael facially. So, I thought they should have aged the actor playing Michael to play him as an older man as they aged Winslet to be older also. The young Michael had a different nose, teeth, mouth
    and Fiennes looked nothing at all like him as an older person.

  • Ranee

    I have to agree about the 2 main characters not looking at all alike. It was the 1st comment I made as I was leaving the theatre. I thoiught they should have found a young actor who looked more like Fiennes. However i thought the film was excellent and the acting was oscar worthy on all 3 of them.
    A question- was this story ever made into a movie before? Not Atonement but a movie called The Reader.
    Perhaps I may have read the book because throughout the entire movie I knew exactly what was to take place next.

  • MaryAnn

    The most important thing for the role of young Michael was finding an actor who could really *act* and give the character the depth and the emotion that he needed.

  • Jo

    I loved this movie. When it was over, I, and many others in the theater, just sat dazed and near tears and let it sink in. It is the type of haunting movie that I think will remain with me for a long while.

  • Tim

    Another example of the double standard which exisit in movies today. There is male frontal nudity but no female frontal nudity. It has become redundant and tiresome.

  • Nick

    Immediately after I left the theater, I wanted to blog it as one of the most depressing and unredeeming movies I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve learned too many times not to be too quick with my tongue so I wanted to do some research first and this review was very insightful. I thought the young Michael did a phenomenal job of not only representing his adolescence but of also demonstrating the maturity to make the odd love affair seem not so bizarre as the age difference suggests. My question is this: why did he not speak up when he knew the truth? Because of the fact that whether she wrote the report or not she was still part of the horrors? Regardless, he was deeply affected by the end of the affair, could his reason hold so strongly against his passion and love of her? I’d appreciate your insight

  • naoma foreman

    The young Michael did an excellent job in the affair with an older woman. I’ve met a number of men who had affairs with older women and it seems they learned everything they needed to know with those relationships when they met a woman in
    their age range. (I was not pleased that young Michael was not “aged” as she was because Fiennes looked nothing like the young Michael) (as I’ve said in my post). I thought Fiennes should have spoken up — you really knew she was illiterate, didn’t you? Perhaps her sentence would have been less. But, she worked in the camps and that might have stopped him — I didn’t think it was the fact that she had been his lover in his youth. I thought he was a weak and shallow man. But, would anyone in those circumstances have done the same? I had no admiration for him, but then I was not in his situation in that period of history. (I had a dear friend whose idea was to teach young men in the ways of sex so they would be great lovers — such as in Europe when fathers take their sons to a prostitute to learn what they should know.) She never followed through on it!

  • MaryAnn

    SPOILER!

    why did he not speak up when he knew the truth?

    I think he was protecting her. She was clearly so ashamed of her illiteracy that she let that remain a secret even though it meant she would take the blame at the trial. And Michael responded to that by keeping her secret as well.

  • naoma foreman

    I left the theater feeling he was weak and shallow
    because he did not tell the authorities that she
    was illiterate and could not have written the letter and perhaps have lessened her sentence.

  • Tim Woods

    As always, Kate is great actress. The boy Michael was fabulous, and Ralph was great.

    The story was terrible: why am I supposed to believe a gorgeous 36 y/o woman is all alone, has no people in her life what-so-ever, and in an instant takes her clothes off to have sex with a callow youth?

    How can I believe a German citizen, Hanna, who’s articulate and well spoken is illiterate? Huh?

    If the adult Michael so loves this woman that he sends her dictated books in prison, over years, but he won’t visit her or answer her letters when she teaches herself to read and write . . . how does that make sense?

  • Cosmin

    I just saw the movie and I think is a decent but not a great movie, certainly not one worthy of a best picture Oscar nod. Apart for Kate Winslet we have the worst acting I ever saw Ralph Fiennes do, Bruno Ganz (amazing in Untergang) who plays a profesor repeating stupidly “Why? Why do you think that?” a couple of times in one minute, Lena Olin unconvincing both old and young; I just wish they gave Alexandra Maria Lara a bigger part.
    The episode in which “the reader” visits one of the camps, all by himself, is unnecessary and a cliche that perhaps the producers felt compelled to put in regarding the Holocaust.
    I think “The boy in the stripped pyjamas” is a much better movie, it explains so touching and simply what the Holocaust was about but perhaps the Academy only likes movies that offer catharsis to the viewers at the end, that fit their narrow esthetic views.

  • MaSch

    As this movie is a nominee for Best Picture, it doesn’t run in Germany yet (as all other nominess), so I haven’t seen it, but: They *didn’t* explain in the movie why he didn’t tell anyone that she was illiterate? In the book, he discussed this question with his father, and came in the end to the conclusion that since she chose punishment over humiliation he had no right to tell her secret.

    I hope that at least the fact that he wonders what he should do is in the movie?

  • naoma

    I may have dozed off during the period where he
    discussed this with his father, but I do not remember that in the movie! I felt he was weak and
    shallow (see above) that he did not try to get
    her punishment reduced from LIFE IMPRISONMENT
    because she could not have written the letter that
    got her that sentence. If she was the “love of his
    youth” he owed her that much.

  • Jo

    Naoma, is it weak and shallow to allow someone power over their own life? In my opinion, one of the main conflicts of the movie is the tension between enforcing what we feel to be best upon someone and allowing them to make their own choices. Hanna chose not to share her secret and Michael respected her enough to allow her to do so.

  • naoma

    Dear Jo, You make a valid point: “Enforcing what we
    feel to be best upon someone and allowing them to
    make their own choices.” How about giving someone
    your opinion concerning their choices(from your
    life experiences) and then giving them OPTIONS? There are many choices in life when faced with any situation and it is good to hear opinions of what
    choices can bring various results.

  • Mathias

    I did not like this film at all and i’m glad that there’s a strong backlash forming against this film and the portrayal of Hanna in particular.

    These were the best two articles i could find to articulate my disgust with this film and i’d love to know your thoughts on it Maryann.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2210804

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rod-lurie/the-holocaust-revisionism_b_166591.html

  • naoma foreman

    I did not think of that connection when I saw the
    film, but in doing a lot of reading as well as the
    articles mentioned in the post I read in some
    comments on various sites that the Pope himself
    did nothing to help the Jews… I know a holocaust
    survivor — her Mother and Sister were sent to
    the ovens and although she talked about it to me,
    she is the sweetest and kindest person I’ve met. So
    forgiving — I could not be like her, sadly.

  • Jean

    Mathias,

    I admit I only read the first article (I’ll get to the other one later), but I found one part of the author’s premise compelling and one part deeply flowed. While I agree that learning to read was not exactly the most redemptive act, I disagree strongly that the movie suggests that ordinary people didn’t know until AFTER the war about what was happening. In fact, I think it was very clear in the scene in the seminar room that all people, even those “less guilty” than Hanna knew. One student even shouts that to the sky (and I’m paraphrasing), “EVERYBODY KNEW! Our parents, our teachers! They all knew!”.

    While this wasn’t my favorite movie, I think that question, what do you do when you ARE guilty (at least to some extent)? How do you as a person move forward? Germany as a nation? And how does Micheal, who was presumably too young to be considered really complicit, relate to his elders? While we knew Hanna’s sin, any person on the street (or the professor in class, or the judge on the bench, or the parents of his girlfriend) has their own story of what they did or not do during that time.

    I don’t think that the movie deserves the Oscar from a movie making point of view, but the questions that it raises during it’s middle section were very compelling to me, and, I think, worth exploring.

  • Granger

    Having thought that the The Hours was one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, I had to see The Reader as soon as it came out. Daldry didn’t disappoint me in the least. Both films are about hard choices. The pivot of course in this film is that Michael doesn’t reveal her or his secret. Michael’s silence is no different than that of other German’s who know of the injustices on Jews and didn’t speak out either – due to either shame or the risk of personal loss. In this way the film turns in on itself in a truly profound way to show how such mass societal injustices have their root in our own individual weaknesses. Michael spends the rest of his life in essence atoning for this error. I find this a much tighter more powerful meditation on this theme that Atonement.

  • Dan Silagi

    The excellence of this story, despite one huge plot hole, is that it allegorizes Michael’s behavior as a law student with that of the German people during the Third Reich. Most Germans didn’t commit atrocities, nor did they know exactly what was happening. They didn’t want to know, and just stood by.

    Michael also just stood by, and watched his former lover take an unfair rap (unfair only in that her comrades received relatively light sentences). While most people believe that Michael’s motivation was that he was ashamed to reveal he had an affair with Hannah while he was a teenager, he had the wherewithal to reveal to the court that Hannah was illiterate (and therefore couldn’t have composed the letter she admitted to writing) without revealing that secret. This was actually foreshadowed in the movie, when Hannah was promoted to an office position from streetcar conductor, a job she couldn’t possibly have held. All Michael had to do was make it be known that Hannah couldn’t hold her office job because of illiteracy (there was certainly an official record; this is Germany, you know), and have the court take it from there.

    An equally important point was Hannah’s accepting responsibility for her actions (and more), which is an allegory for today’s Germans accepting responsibility for the acts of their ancestors, something I have yet to see as far as the Japanese are concerned.

    Finally, we have Lena Olin’s character, which I wasn’t all that happy with, as a vengeful Holocaust survivor. She epitomizes Jews of my parents’ generation, who’ll never forgive any Germans, regardless of age, for what happened. I’m Jewish myself, and my motto is “forgive, but never forget.”

  • naoma foreman

    to Dan above: I enjoyed reading your review and
    agree with it. For people who do not believe the
    Holocaust happened — and they are out there — my
    daughter’s Mother-in-Law is a Holocaust survivor
    and she is the kindest, sweetest person I have ever
    met. I know I would not have her kindness after what I know she went through. I admire her greatly.

  • MaSch

    Dan: In your second paragraph, you could substitute “former statuary rapist” for “former lover”, and the whole thing would look way different.

  • naoma foreman

    posted by MaSch (Mon Mar 09 09, 8:27AM):

    Dan: In your second paragraph, you could substitute “former statuary rapist” for “former lover”, and the whole thing would look way different.
    ****

    “STATUARY RAPIST” MIGHT BE RAPE OF A STATUE?
    I THINK YOU MEANT “STATUTORY” RAPE. I KNOW I AM
    IN THE MINORITY, BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE IT WAS RAPE
    OF THE YOUNG MAN WITH HIS MORE MATURE LOVER. YOUNG MEN MIGHT LEARN A THING OR TWO BY BEING TAUGHT TO MAKE LOVE BY A MATURE WOMAN. SOMEONE TOLD ME IN
    EUROPE MEN WOULD TAKE THEIR SONS TO A PROSTITUTE
    TO LEARN HOW TO MAKE LOVE. (PERHAPS THIS IS NOT LONGER DONE?)

  • MaSch

    Damn it, I thought I could conceal my non-native-speakerishness.

  • naoma foreman

    posted by MaSch (Mon Mar 09 09, 5:07PM)

    Damn it, I thought I could conceal my non-native-speakerishness.

    Dear MaSch:

    I love your phrasing! And, glad you were not
    upset at my “corrections.”

  • Dan Silagi

    Mathias:

    I read Ron Rosenbaum’s excreable review of “The Reader” in Slate. Rosenbaum is a charter member, along with Daniel Goldhagen, of the I Hate Germans Club, someone who hates everything German from Audi to Zeiss, and who believes that Germans are genetically programmed to hate Jews.

    Rosenbaum wrote a book called (and I’m paraphrasing) “Psychologizing Hitler.” I read it and thought it was junk, given that Rosenbaum obviously never met Hitler nor his henchmen, so how can he psychologize him?

    The episode in the movie actually happened, although it was American POWs, not Jews, who were the victims. This happened during the Battle of the Bulge. The perps were members of a Waffen-SS division (military, not the paramilitary Allgemeine-SS, which is where the civilian prison guards (such as Kate Winslet’s character)) worked, if “worked” is the right word for them. What’s ironic about the real episode is that by and large, American POWs weren’t terribly treated by the Germans, even the Jewish ones.

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