Written by: David Hare
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz
Reconciliation from crimes against humanity contains an air of impossibility to it where no just action could rectify the preceding objectionable decisions. This came to light aplenty with the trials following the Holocaust as those who participated in it directly or passively needed to speak on what they did or did not do. The Reader examines the case of one individual who did plenty wrong but still shows their humanity in all of its vulnerability.
Young Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a summer affair with a tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) where they spend days engaging in sex and occasionally Michael reading books to her. Following the affair and some time apart, Michael learns she stands on trial in a case where Hanna served as a Nazi guard resulting in the deaths of hundreds of women and children.
So much in The Reader results in its audiences feeling uneasy as the characters involve themselves in reprehensible actions but the emotional tether they have to each other and reality allows for a level of empathy to exist. This becomes the ultimate act of the film and whether one can follow along with it ultimately will stand as their decision on the feature as a whole. This does not just include Hanna being a former Nazi, but the central summer affair taking place between Michael at 15 with Hannah being a much older woman at 36. Horrible for obvious reasons, the statutory rape under the guise of some romance plays an integral part of the feature in demonstrating the bond built by Michael and Hanna. Its importance leads to what transpires in the second half of the film but it can be argued the film relishes far too much in the scenes of them having sex. Sure, this can be part of the plot with everyone acknowledging it to be dreadfully wrong but when you see how the film captures it all could cause you to gag. A sense of romanticism where grooming and manipulation of a literal child truly describe what transpires. The film made this decision and unfortunately, it will lose some of the messages it wants to share with its story, and rightfully so.
Where the feature navigates in some morally dubious emotional manipulation, it manages to draw a fine line about how audience members should feel about the entire ordeal. This comes specifically in the scenes of the trial where Michael, a law student at this point, reckons with the person he fell in love with and later on flash forwards as a fully grown man. It does not necessarily come down to whether the audience feels bad for Hanna but rather, can we make a connection with Michael and the emotional journey he goes on with Hanna to feel the pain through him? Revelations coming to the surface and reckoning arrives to Michael in ways he never prepared himself for and it comes down to whether his actions have emotional merit dues to his circumstances rather than seeing if we connect with Hanna after all of the actions seen and unseen in the feature.
For all of the uncomfortable moments the film presents to us that will have audience members incredibly conflicted with what transpires, at the very least everyone can acknowledge the strong performances involved. Kate Winslet, in particular, walks such a fine line with what she needs to accomplish in this role and you almost have to commend her for taking it on and all of the issues that come from it. Not only does she need to bare it all in a physical sense but the character she portrays truly becomes impossible to care for but through her performance, she chips away at the righteous coolness we have towards Hanna. It, therefore, makes sense she won her long-overdue Academy Award for this feature. She took an impossible task head-on and made the best of it considering the circumstances. Then you have the combination of Ralph Fiennes and David Kross portraying Michael Berg in various phases of his life and they each do a stand-up job. They demonstrate why this woman had such a profound effect on Berg even if the audience may be yelling at the screen that he should not feel the way he does.
Without a doubt, The Reader remains difficult to watch and not something hoping to be clean-cut with its storytelling and emotions. It takes a horrible situation and tells an emotionally effective story. While contending Stephen Daldry’s direction proves to be objectionable when it comes to the sex scenes earlier in the feature, the film as a whole pieces together something not tidy but engaging with when it comes to what it means to realize someone you love participated in such heinous acts.