A Holocaust drama set years after the Nazi concentration camps were shut down, "The Reader" provocatively views this shameful time in history from an outsider's perspective. In this way, it is similar to 2008's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
," only much more respectful and less irresponsibly manipulative. As written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry (who last collaborated together on 2002's "The Hours
"), "The Reader" effectively spans decades (1958 to 1995) as it depicts the intersecting lives of two people who might have been soul mates had the messy circumstances of their pasts and futures not gotten in the way. Even still, their relationship prevails, unorthodox though it may be, and as bittersweet as it ultimately becomes.
In 1995 Berlin, attorney Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) clearly has a lot on his mind. As thoughts of years gone by take over, the film flashes back to Neustadt, West Germany, circa 1958, as 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) becomes sick in the entryway of an apartment building and resident Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) kindly cleans the walk up and escorts him safely home. Stricken with Scarlet Fever and placed on bed-rest, it is another three months before Michael is able to return to Hanna, "thank-you" flowers in hand. Hanna, a train attendant, seduces the virginal Michael, and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship that becomes something more when he begins reading books aloud to her. Their summer is a passionate onethey go on a bicycle trip together, and aren't without the occasional spatand then, as quick as that, Hanna moves away with nary a word to Michael about her whereabouts. Eight years later, Michael is now a law student at prestigious Heidelberg and given the privilege by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) of sitting in on a high-profile court case. What he does not expect to find is Hanna among a group of women on trial for their actions as S.S. concentration camp guards who, back in the early-1940s, were responsible for sending untold numbers of Jewish prisoners to death. When Hanna falsely admits guilt of being the ringleader of the guards, Michael is placed in the unique and dubious situation of being the only one who knows of her lie and the sacrifice she has just made.
"The Reader" is an arresting adaptation of the novel by Bernhard Schlink. The narrative, broken up into three segmentsMichael's teenage, college and adult yearstakes a while to reveal where it is headed. Once it does, and once the sticky story's unpredictable conclusion edges near, the culminating emotions pack the desired punch. For its opening half-hour or a little more, the film appears to be a lurid romance between a grown woman and an underage boy in post-WWII Germany, nothing more. One expects Michael's parents and friends to find out about their secret affair, and trouble to brew from this knowledge, but it never happens. When Hanna's past is uncovered, thereby informing the viewer of who she is and why she acted the way she did with Michael, director Stephen Daldry takes a sharp (but not unnatural) turn with the proceedings.
Haunted by the love he could feel for a woman with such a heinous past, and later, knowing what he knows, saddened by the decisions Hanna had to make years before and the price being paid now, Michael is left torn between moving on and clinging to what has already been. Even as he gains a career, marries and divorces, has a daughter, etc., Michael feels stunted, his seeming connection to Hanna (if not physically, then metaphysically) remaining. His means of obtaining this correspondence will not be divulged but suffice it to say he gives Hanna, alone and with few prospects, perhaps the most valuable gift possible. In return, Hanna presents him with the chance to do something good in the wake of a life full of unforgivable mistakes.
Kate Winslet (2006's "The Holiday
") is tough, stubborn, and sometimes even curt as Hanna Schmitz, but behind that is a childlike curiosity and vulnerability that warms her to the viewer. Even when the full scope of what she has done is aired in the open, Winslet plays the role as that of a victim of circumstance, a woman who didn't know what she was getting into and, unable to get back out, made the best of her limited means. "What would you have done?" Hanna asks the judge during the trial, in reference to her days working at Auschwitz and Krakow. He doesn't have an answer. As the young Michael, David Kross is highly appealing and, faced with some explicit sex scenes and nudity for a 17-year-old (at the time of filming), decidedly brave. Kross takes Michael from a fumbling teenage boy to a wiser, more hardened young man in graduate school, and the stark contrast with which he portrays this character at two distinct ages is impressive. Ralph Fiennes (2008's "In Bruges
") makes a connective impact as the older Michael with less screen time. A man who has partially dedicated his life to a woman in prison whom he isn't sure he likes anymore (he still loves her), Michael is full of regrets and, by the end, has made the first steps to correcting them. Though they only share two scenes together, his relationship with grown daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung) is written with warmth and subtlety. Likewise, a late scene he has with Lena Olin (2007's "Awake
"), as a Holocaust survivor, is refreshingly civil, mature and plausible, free of the melodramatic histrionics a lesser film would have held.
"The Reader" tells an involving, touching and unusual story, and tells it well. The unconventional romantic element is at the heart of things, but the exploration of the Holocaust and the forces responsible for it is just as thoughtful. There is a haunting sequence where college-aged Michael travels to a nearby concentration camp. As he walks around the property, long since abandoned, he considers the horrors that have occurred there and is practically incapable of linking such a place to the love of his life. On-location lensing across Germany by Roger Deakins (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
") and Chris Menges (2008's "Stop-Loss
"), as well as the fluid incorporation of the music score by Nico Muhly (2007's "Joshua
"), help to piece together the various timeframes into a whole. "The Reader" may be almost too low-key for unfortunate audiences with short attention spans, but sticking with it throughout offers up a rewarding, even cathartic experience.