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.