The Reader opens locally Jan. 2
For those of us with limited patience for the kinds of exquisitely tasteful literary adaptations that tend to litter theaters in December, The Reader requires, well, patience. Adapted by playwright David Hare (a principal offender in the world of tasteful screenplay adaptations) from a bestselling novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, the film is directed by Stephen Daldry, who last collaborated with Hare on another lace-handkerchief weepie, The Hours.
Indeed, the film's long first act, set in Berlin in 1955, is an unending prologue of tinkling music, muted colors, longing glances, lovingly caressed flesh and worshipful treatment of literature. This is the youth of Michael Berg (played in these years by David Kross and in maturity by Ralph Fiennes), a bookish, vaguely rebellious middle-class teen who chances into an affair with Hanna, a sad-eyed, single, working-class woman in her 30s (Kate Winslet, who reveals an appealing, if improbably toned, body). The lad gets his sexual education in the summer-long affair; Hanna, for her part, insists that Michael read aloud to her before sex—from Chekhov, from Lessing, from Goethe. There's far too much of this doomed summer romance, but when it finally ends, the film's action advances a few years, to when Michael is in law school.
Then the narrative cards land on the table: While taking a war crimes seminar, Michael is shocked to discover a grayer, more haggard Hanna among a group of defendants charged with crimes committed against Jewish prisoners while working for the SS during the war. Michael keeps his distance from Hanna during the trial; instead, the film begins to show its true interest (and no doubt that of novelist Schlink, who is a law professor) in the limits of legal and moral responsibility and in the individual and collective guilt of the German people.
Although they don't meet in this second act, both Hanna and Michael make important moral choices that center on a revelation I won't share. This secret is an effective enough dramatic device on an emotional level, but it doesn't appreciably complicate the moral and legal stakes in the story. (And, frankly, this plot point, hidden in plain sight, won't surprise anyone who's seen a few movies and has been paying attention to this one.)
With the aid of this unsurprising revelation, the film then forces us, in its final act set three decades later, into emotional and psychological complicity with Winslet's Nazi guard. This sets up a brutal face-off between present-day Michael and a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin) who was Hanna's chief accuser. The story complicates matters by presenting the survivor as a supercilious, hyper-cultivated and extremely wealthy Upper East Side New Yorker. The ensuing confrontation, in which Michael attempts to communicate Hanna's remorse, is utterly riveting—and deeply discomfiting—as the characters work through issues of guilt, penance and forgiveness.
What's best about the scene is its emotional ambiguity—we (and Michael, as our surrogate) enter into it with expectations that cannot, and will not, be fulfilled. This scene, along with the legal and moral issues raised in Hanna's trial, more than redeems the tasteful banality found elsewhere in the film.