Movie Rewind: “The Reader” (2008)

Directed by:  Stephen Daldry

Written by:   David Hare [screenplay based on the novel The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink]

Starring:  Kate WinsletRalph FiennesBruno Ganz

Nominated for 33 Academy Awards in 2009, “The Reader” took Best Picture and Best Leading Actress (Kate Winslet).  Regarding the former award, the Academy broke with tradition by allowing four producers to share the honor.  Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away before the film was completed, but were honored posthumously along with their replacements, Donna Gigliotti and Redmond Morris.

Set in post-World War II Germany, the movie’s plot centers on an erotic affair between Michael, a fifteen year-old student (played by David Kross) and Hanna (Winslet), a thirty-something woman who helps him when he falls ill in public.  Their involvement lasts only for a summer, ending when Hanna abruptly leaves.  Years later, as a law student, Michael unexpectedly encounters Hanna again when he attends a Nazi war crimes trial with his professor and classmates from a seminar.  What he learns about her has a profound effect on the course of his future life as a lawyer, husband, and parent (played by Fiennes).

This story tackles the weighty issue of the relationship of the post-war German generation to the Holocaust, perpetrated by their parents’ generation.  This relationship is made concrete in Michael and Hanna’s liaison and its aftermath.  Without giving away too many details that would be spoilers, a quote from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie captures the application of this issue to the present:

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 most white Americans, from the North and South, knew about racial discrimination but didn’t go out on a limb to oppose it? Philip Roth’s great novel The Plot Against America imagines a Nazi takeover here. It is painfully thought-provoking and probably not unfair. “The Reader” suggests that many people are like Michael and Hanna, and possess secrets that we would do shameful things to conceal.