The Reader addresses the void in films that address issues confronting the generation born after the Holocaust in Germany.
In post-WWII Germany, teen Michael Berg (David Kross) falls ill on his way home from school and is helped home by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a woman twice his age. Michael recovers and seeks out Hanna to thank her but instead begins a passionate, secretive affair. He discovers Hanna likes to be read to, deepening their physical relationship. Then Hanna mysteriously disappears, leaving Michael confused and heartbroken. Eight years later, Michael is a law student observing Nazi war crime trials and is shocked to find Hanna is one of the defendants. As Hanna’s past is revealed, Michael uncovers a deep secret that will impact both of their lives.
The Reader is a haunting story that spans 37 years. It’s about how one generation comes to terms with the crimes of another. The children born after the war were innocent of the atrocities committed but trapped under the dark cloud that hung over the population. They were ashamed of their parents and neighbours, even if just for tolerating the perpetrators in their midst. One character argues the trials are a diversion because everyone in Germany is guilty. Michael expresses his warring emotions, saying when he tries to understand Hanna’s actions, he feels he should be condemning it; but when he condemns her actions, there is no room for understanding.
Audiences will have very similar conflicting feelings towards Winslet’s character, which earned her a best actress Academy Award. First exposed to a warm relationship with a lovely woman, it is difficult to reconcile that image with an agent of death. Any hint of empathy or sympathy for Hanna feels wrong.
Kross is exceptional, portraying both the 15-year-old and 23-year-old Michael. His affection towards Hanna is palpable, while his revulsion at her past is equally blatant. Ralph Fiennes portrays the middle-aged Michael, who is remembering his history with Hanna. However, Kross’ characters are more significant to the story, somewhat overshadowing Fiennes’ representation. Winslet is sincere and credible as both the lover and the almost naïve perpetrator. Her performance at the trial is especially moving.
The DVD contains the usual special features. Deleted scenes further explore the relationship of the star-crossed lovers as well as Michael’s warring emotions; the most missed scene is a classroom discussion in which the teacher further provokes the students’ thoughts. The “making of” featurette includes interviews with various cast and crew, while there is a separate recorded conversation between Kross and director Stephen Daldry discussing his journey with the character and approach to the love scenes. A summary of the multi-hour aging process Winslet underwent is also provided, during which she shows she’s quite witty and down-to-earth. A shocking element may be the youth of the film’s composer Nico Muhly, who stars in his own featurette.