How do you relate to someone after you discover they’ve committed monstrous acts?
The generation born in Germany after World War II – who Berthold Brecht called “those who came after” (Nachgeborenen) – faced that question every day.
The 2008 German-American film The Reader, available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library, explores the effect of the past on that post-war generation through a relationship between a youth and an older woman.
In 1958 West Germany, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) falls in love with Hannah (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor 20 years his senior, and enters into an intense physical and emotional affair with her.
Hannah is blunt, secretive, and commanding, but Michael discovers the key to her affections – she loves being read to. For a time they share a deep connection, but it ends when Hannah packs up and vanishes from Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken.
Several years later, Michael is a law student and attends the trial of several SS guards. To his shock, Hannah is one of the defendants.
As she testifies, he grasps one of the essential secrets she’s been hiding, and turns to his professor for advice.
“What we feel isn’t important,” Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) says. “The only question is what we do.”
Trying to reconcile his feelings for the first woman he knew intimately and his revulsion for her actions becomes the task of Michael’s life.
Kate Winslet is compelling as the enigmatic Hannah, aging from a 36-year old woman to one in her 70s. She received an Academy Award for Best Actress.
However, the film is about Michael, the reader. Kross, who is German, conveys a subtle transformation from naïve and eager youth, to the guarded man he becomes in the aftermath of his first, doomed, love affair. This paves the way for Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the Michael as the emotionally remote, middle-aged man.
Lena Olin is unrecognizable, playing a dual role as a Holocaust survivor and her adult daughter.
Though it deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust, the story’s focus on the personal struggle of an appealing lead character engages the viewer, even when the initial reaction might be to turn away from such dark subject matter. Special features on the DVD include deleted scenes that clarify the larger themes of the film, as well as some funny scenes of Michael reading to Hannah that didn’t make the final cut.
The Reader is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Bernhard Schlink, adapted by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours).