The Greatest films of all time: 94.The Reader (Germany/USA) (2008)


“The Reader” is Based on the German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, a lawyer, judge and an academic in addition to be a novelist, published in 1995. The film that was produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack (who both died before the release of the film) was directed by Stephen Daldry, a playwright with many works in London and Broadway who turned to the feature filmmaking from 2000 with “Billy Elliot” then “The Hours” in 2002 before making “The Reader” in 2008 with the assistance of the screen writer, David Hare.

A Nation’s tale of Redemption:

The film opens in the present time of 1995 when Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a German lawyer by looking through the window of his apartment seeing a rapid transit car that triggers a flashback in his mind riding a tram in Berlin as a teenager in 1958. The 15 year old Michael (David Cross) feels sick after getting off the tram to the point of vomiting by an apartment building. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 36 year old tram conductor returning home from work, passing by him and feeling empathic, taking him upstairs to her flat, cleans him and walk him to his home.

The Reader Movie – Kate Winslet

Michael develops fever and has to rest for a few day, but as soon as recovers, he returns to Hanna’s place to thank her with some flowers. While she is getting dressed for work, Michael sneaks up on her that provokes him sexually when his eyes fall on her naked legs putting on her stockings, but as a virgin young boy, he runs out in shame. From then on Hanna will become the subject of the young man’s obsessive attraction and keep following her at work on the tram and at her flat. In one of these visit at her apartment, she asks him to bring her some coals for her heater that makes him all blackened dirty. She will undress him and bathes him like a mother to her boy. This inflames the sexual temptation in both and leads to a long sexual relationship.

While the sexual acts fulfill Michael, Hanna demands more and asking him to read her from his books and novels that he studies in school, each time before sleeping together. Book after book is read and Hanna’s thirst for learning does not seem to end. After returning from a bicycle trip to the country side with Michael, Hanna learns that she has been promoted to a clerical job at the tram’s company that prompts her to vacate and leaves her flat without informing Michael or we as the viewers knowing the reason.

A few years later when Michael is at a law school, as part of his course observing trials, his eyes in surprise fall on Hanna in the courtroom with a few other women in trial for crime association in choosing and sending Jews to the gas chambers in a concentration camp. A Jewish witness, Llana Mather (Alexandra Maria Lara) and her mother (Lena Olin) who survived the concentration camp testify that Hanna had women in the camp to read books to her in the evenings. Unlike other accused women, Hanna admits to their roles in selection of the frail victims who were not able to work anymore to the gas chambers. She explains that was their duty and they could not refuse and ask one of the judges what he would do if in that position with no response. Finally the other suspected women accuse Hanna in charge of a church fire report that she denies. When she is asked for a sample of handwriting test, she refuses then admits to the charge that leads her to life imprisonment.

Michael watching the trial suddenly realizes the illiteracy of Hanna and the reason behind her intense desire to be read to, a fact that she has been ashamed o admit so concealed it all her life. Thinking to testify in her favour so to release her from jail, he finally decides to respect her wish to keep her secret. Going to visit her in the prison, he leaves without seeing her, but starts recording the novels that he had read to Hanna as a teenager on tapes and send them to her in the prison. Hanna finally borrows the same books from the prison’s library and word by word tries hard to learn to read and write that slowly she succeeds.

Years later Michael receives a phone call from a prison official (Linda Bassett) that Hanna is planned to be released due to good behavior and he is asked if he could help her in the transition back to society. Michael finally visits Hanna in the prison face to face for the first time since their affairs. He tells her that he has arranged a place and even a job for her, and when he asks her about her thoughts and feelings about the past, she responds that it doesn’t matter how she feels or what she thinks as “The dead are still dead”. When Michael arrives at the prison on the date of Hanna’s release with flowers, he is told that she has hung herself and has left him some cash in tin and a note asking him to hand it to Llana to allocate it for a Jewish charity.

Michael visits Llana (now Lena Olin) with the cash and confesses his past relationship with Hanna and about her illiteracy, but she refuses the money that Michael suggests he will donate it to a Jewish charity. The film ends with Michael driving his daughter, Julia to Hanna’s grave while telling her their story.

Despite the film received mix of positive and negative reviews by critics, except for the superb performance by Kate Winselt that earned her first Academy, Golden and BAFTA awards among others, it was not appreciated well. Some critics downgraded the story and the film for putting the illiteracy topic above the holocaust and that illiteracy is no justification for the concentration guards’ association in the mass crime of Jews. These critics seem to have missed the whole idea of the Germans’ guilt as a nation over the crimes of Nazis in the extermination of the Jews. Many Germans had worked in different job positions during the ruling of Nazis that in one way or another could be interpreted as association in their crimes.

There were so many of these people such as the concentration camps’ guards like in the story and the film who were not charged at all or not sufficiently with no remorse on their parts. But Hanna Schmitz is honest to admit in her association in the crime through her job’s obligation at the time and feeling guilty so leading her committing suicide at the end and donating her leftover cash for Jewish charity. This is the psychological story of the guilt burden on the hearts and minds of some honest Germans like Hanna.

The film has also been critiqued negatively for the sexual abuse of a teenage boy by an older woman. But these critics, who perhaps did not criticize the film “Graduate”, have not realized that the teenage boy was obsessively in love with the older woman and while the relationship was basically for his sexual pleasure, it was beyond that for the woman. The illiteracy subject of the story could also point to the illiteracy and ignorance of the whole German nation at the time of Nazis who quietly and passively supported their crimes.

Lastly the film is great beyond its subject story as a great film needs to be, for its script and the great performance of Kate Winslet and for being a film of eroticism and seduction to a story of the aftermath of the world war II from the ordinary Germans’ perspective for their association in the Nazis’ crimes. The illiteracy shame of Hanna is a universal shame of the honest Germans who lived at the time, and a lesson for them and the rest of the world who at any point in time in history remain passive and supportive of their governments in their justified crimes, e.g. the Vietnam war crimes by the United States government.         


In closing remarks “The Reader” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “The Reader” is original in its central subject of illiteracy as a mystery, shame and guilt that lashes back on a nation, Germans at the time of Nazis, who passively ignored and supported the mass extermination of another nation, the Jews. In addition the film is a mélange of two erotic and political stories addressing ethical and moral issues at individual and universal facets.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Reader” is in its script, great performance of Winslet, editing, cinematography and direction that altogether has produced an erotic, romance, political and mystery film with deep aftermath psychological and ethical issues to ponder on long after viewing.
  3. Impact Factor: The impact of “The Reader” has been and will be on the people who were directly and indirectly involved in the attempt for annihilation of a nation, the Jews for the racist pride of another nation, Germans at the time of Nazis.
  4. Survival: “The Reader” has survived well for its powerful subject of the story and its deliverance on the minds of the first time viewers and the ones who have watched it several times.

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