Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
While the idea of making a film where someone falls in love with a Nazi isn’t a new idea, Stephen Daldry’s film The Reader takes the concept to the next level. Not only does the film deal with an affair between a young boy and a former Nazi SS guard after World War II but it also examines the concept of war trials during this area as well. While the two differing themes could have the propensity to cause a film to be uneven, this film not only works but does an excellent job at leaving the filmgoer rethinking fundamental beliefs about morality and ethics within society.
The story starts of with Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) beginning to have flashbacks of his life. The first memory given to the audience is that of his younger self (David Kross) at fifteen-years-old getting sick on his way home from school. He is helped by a mysterious stranger (Kate Winslet) and makes sure that he gets home in one piece. He is declared stricken with scarlet fever and must stay in bed for several weeks. When he gets better, he pays the mysterious woman a visit to thank her. He does a couple of chores and after one thing leading to another, they are in throws of passion. They have an affair for the entire summer as young Michael abandons his friends and family for lengthy periods of time to spend time with the woman. In-between lovemaking sessions, she asks him to read to her. He reads her various novels and works written throughout history. After a particularly bitter fight, she leaves (although she was planning to leave anyways because she received a promotion), leaving Michael heartbroken.
Several years later, Michael is studying law at college when his professor takes the small class to watch a Nazi war crimes trial. Michael’s heart drop as he hears his former lover’s name as one of the accused at the trial. Hanna Schmitz is being accused and admits to being an SS guard at a concentration camp during World War II. Michael is conflicted with his romantic feelings he has for the woman and the horrendous actions that she committed. When Michael finds evidence that would exonerate Hanna of some of the more heinous crimes she was being accused of, he is confused at what would be the right thing to do. He’s not sure how clouded his judgment is and doesn’t know if his love for this woman is causing him to see compassion for someone he wouldn’t normally give or want to give mercy to.
The movie is more or less split into two parts: during and after the affair. While it does help set up the story, the time given to detailing what Michael and Hanna do during their summer feels a bit too long. As nice as it is to see Kate Winslet in her natural beauty, Daldry could have easily snipped away some of those scenes. After fifteen minutes, it adds nothing to the story. Also, to some since, it could be confusing why Michael, who seems to be both socially popular and physically gifted would not be interested in someone at his school or closer to his age but instead falls for a woman who is about twice his age. Michael does not seem rejected by his family or his peers so it is a bit perplexing why he would want to find the embrace with an older woman (other than the obvious reason of fooling around under the bedsheets). Not to say that this isn’t unfathomable, but the story could have done a better job building that connection (for example, Michael being rejected by girls his age).
The second part of the movie makes up for the plodding pace of the beginning of the film. While the courtroom is a central hub for activity, little of the story is told there. The professor realizes that Michael is conflicted and pushes him to find what he thinks is the right thing to do. Even some of the students who are not as emotionally invested in the trial as Michael question their own stances on what is right and wrong. The movie does not condone or glorify anything the Nazis did during World War II. The question that continually gets passed around though is whether anyone else could have done anything different if they were in the position of someone like Hanna Schmitz. Michael knows what she was not only wrong but horrific. The problem that he is facing is that despite all that, he still cares for her because she was a significant part of his life which will rest on his heart forever.
The choice Michael makes throughout The Reader create not just conversation for people leaving the movie theatres but deep philosophical debates that will last for a while. Stephen Daldry does very well to make the viewer think deep inside themselves to find their moral barometer. The film could have been a bit stronger in some areas, but it creates a stir of controversy that moviegoers and students of film will be talking and arguing about for years to come.