The Reader is an adaptation of Der Vorleser, a partly autobiographical novel by Bernhard Schlink, a German law professor and judge. Since it’s original German publication in 1995 and then English translation in 1997, it has won multiple awards and become a best seller. This film adaptation is aware of its distinguished literary background and the serious acting, serious Philip Glass inspired score and serious cinematography all insist that The Reader is An Important Film. In the hands of less capable filmmakers it could have been excruciating but as they demonstrated when they collaborated on The Hours, director Stephen Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare are more than capable of making such a text accessible to wider audiences. The Reader is not a cold academic exercise but a deeply moving film.
After a brief flash-forward to Berlin in 1995, The Reader opens in Neustadt, 1958, where teenager Michael Berg, played by German actor David Kross, is sick with scarlet fever. Tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) assists him when he is sick in the street but when he returns to her apartment to thank her they begin a passionate affair. This first third of The Reader focuses on the dynamics of this affair and it is an erotic, tender and slightly unsettling romance. However, the bigger issues at the core of The Reader does not become apparent until the middle section of the film, set in 1966. Michael is studying law at Heidelberg University and attends a trial of former SS guards who let 300 Jewish women die when a church they imprisoned them in caught fire. At this trial Michael again encounters Hanna and discovers who she was prior to their affair in 1958.
Michael is part of the first generation to come after World War II and a key theme of The Reader is how this generation of Germans, and others after it, confront the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. The brilliant narrative device of using Michael’s sexual awakening with Hanna as the means to link his generation to the previous generation, allows the complexities involved to be explored on a personal level. It is an emotional and philosophical exploration of national guilt, the difference between morality and the law, and how to assign responsibility to something as evil and all consuming as the Holocaust. It is also a film about absolution. The Jewish voice is not left out and the final third of the The Reader, where Michael is an adult and played by Ralph Fiennes, includes an important Jewish perspective. The Reader is a beautiful and deeply moving film with incredible performances by all involved but in particular Winslet as Hanna and Kross as the young Michael Berg.