The ability to read gives us the power to magnify ourselves and expands the ways in which we exist. It gives us knowledge and experience, and lights our path through life with a kind of moral illumination.
It’s one of the first abilities we learn as children. And yet, I‘ve known a few adults who couldn‘t read. For whatever reason, whether it was poverty or a learning disorder, they just never learned how. They always harbored a deep shame and usually tried to hide it from others. It definitely changed how they interacted with the rest of the world. I can’t even imagine the darkness of their lives.
In The Reader, a crucial decision is made by a 24-year-old German law student, who has information that might help a woman about to be sentenced to life in prison. He withholds it.
He is ashamed to reveal his teenage affair with this woman.
A middle-aged lawyer reflects on the summer when he turned 15. In Germany of the late 1950’s, he meets a 36-year-old tram worker named Hanna Schmitz. The boy develops an almost immediate sexual curiosity about this woman who calls him “kid” and treats him with a gruff, unsentimental approximation of affection. He develops a helpless crush on her, but it shouldn’t be confused with love. The two embark on an affair that, for Michael, represents a sensuous introduction to sexual life. That such things are wrong is beside the point. Sometimes, things like this just happen.
Theirs is a steamy, hermetic, forbidden world, and these scenes portray Hanna and Michael with a great deal of nudity and sensuality, which is correct for a story like this. During those hours, in that time, they are about nothing else.
Winslet deserved her Academy Award for the beautiful, aching performance she delivers here. For Hanna, the relationship is fraught with deeper and more unsettling issues. This is a secretive, working-class character who holds everything inside. The only escape route for emotion is through her eyes. And Winslet writes volumes with her eyes.
The two make love hungrily in her shabby apartment, yet their true intimacy comes as she orders Michael to read aloud to her in bed. Hanna delights in readings. The bright beauty of Homer, Chekhov, and D.H. Lawrence deepen their emotional ties.
There is a moment where Hanna finds herself inside a small church listening to a young choir and tears are streaming down her face. Michael watches her from the doorway.
This episode causes a change in Hanna’s behavior. When Michael shows up at her apartment a few days later, he finds it suddenly deserted. With no hint or warning, she has disappeared. His unformed ego is unprepared for this blow.
Several years after the affair, Michael is a law student attending the trial of a group of female Nazi prison guards. During the war, these women had locked 300 inmates inside a burning church and allowed them to die.
Unexpectedly, he notices Hanna as one of the defendants and learns the unspeakable truth of her past.
The others blame Hanna for writing the order that condemned the prisoners to death, but Michael realizes a truth that explains her personality. It’s why she entered into an affair with a boy. It’s why she let herself work at Auschwitz and drift into evil.
It explains why she would rather spend the rest of her life in jail rather than publicly confess that she cannot read or write.
Hanna is the most banal and mundane of villains, someone so docile and resigned to her fate that she isn’t even willing to defend herself. This is the legacy of Germany’s most cataclysmic and hauntingly unresolved era. Michael’s discovery doesn’t excuse Hanna’s complicit and unforgivable guilt, but his testimony would exonerate her from the greater charge and affect her sentencing.
And so Michael makes an appointment to go to the prison and see her. But as she waits for her unknown visitor to arrive, he suddenly turns away. As a member of Germany’s “second generation” that came of age after the war, he represents the difficulties of coping with the truths behind the shame of his country’s past. What he realizes, is that there is nothing he can say to her or to the court that will change anything. Whether she wrote the actual order or not really doesn’t matter. The others get off with lighter sentences, but all of them are equally guilty of whatever it was that allowed the German psyche to allow the holocaust.
Here is a woman he once loved who now is revealed as a monster. The collective sense of national guilt is played out in the shame that surrounds Michael’s early relationship with Hanna, an affair he must continually reframe as facts come to light that suggest that, what for him was a sentimental education, was heavier with far more malign abuses of power.
He withholds moral witness and remains silent.
A reflective Michael, now in his 40’s, has sentenced himself to a lonely, isolated existence. We see him after a night with a woman, treating her with remote politeness. He has never recovered from the wound he received from Hanna, nor from the one he would inflict on himself at her trial. She hurt him, he hurt her. She was isolated and secretive, and he has acquired her trait of emotional distance. He can only sleep alone. His marriage has failed. He is not as close to his daughter as he would like. And finally he is not able to help Hanna as she grows old in prison. He cannot bring himself to respond to her letters. And yet he still reads to her. Hour after hour after hour, he reads the classics into a recorder and sends the tapes to the prison where she listens to them.
With her release date growing near, he becomes a man who must rewrite his own history with all it’s qualities of shame, pride, fear, obedience, mercy, gratitude, and love.
There are enormous pressures in all societies to go along. It’s a fact of human nature. Most people, most of the time, all over the world, choose to go along. We vote with the tribe. What would we have done during the rise of Hitler? If we had been Jews, we would have fled or been killed. But if we were one of the rest of the Germans? Can we guess, on the basis of how we knew about racial discrimination in our own country but didn’t go out on a limb to oppose it, that we would have done differently?
The Reader is a love story without love, war story without war, and ultimately a meditation on our inability to understand the complexities and distortions of history.