It was a secret he never told, but an affair that he never forgot. An affair he never wanted to forget. In The Reader, Michael Berg relays the story of his affair through a series of flashbacks that display the consequences of secrecy with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet.
In The Reader, actor Ralph Fiennes, the older Michael, introduces us to his world after the death of Hanna. Everything seems to remind him of her. The crumpled bed sheets in his new apartment, a family member’s lips, a windowpane; they all bring up memories of his short time with her.
He allows them to quietly haunt him throughout his life, leading to his spiritual isolation from the world. He senses this isolation, but does nothing to hinder it. He keeps her presence and the memories within him. He is the prime example of never getting over a first love.
As Michael loses himself in his daydreams of the past, he sees his younger self, played by David Kross, just before he meets Hanna for the first time. On his way home from school, he unknowingly stops at the entrance of her apartment and becomes sick. She helps nurse him back to health, and thus begins a devious affair.
As the affair grows in time and in intensity, he skips school, ignores the advances of other women and distances himself from his family. Then, she asks him to read to her his novels from school. The reading becomes integrated into their intimacy as a sort of foreplay. They begin to fall in love, but one day Hanna suddenly disappears without a trace.
Years later, Michael, now a law student, is observing court hearings involving defendants who have committed Nazi war crimes. He is shocked when he discovers that his old love Hanna is one of those defendants to be punished for the horrible crimes that she committed.
Though the film is from Michael Berg’s perspective, it is centered on Kate Winslet’s portrayal of her complex character, which allows the audience to grow to like her.
As time progresses, we are able to see her flaws and begin to dislike her for the mistakes she has made and her inability to admit these grave mistakes. But that’s what makes her character human.
Few films, if any, display the before and after of guards and Nazi workers. Their background, their love life and their sensitivity are rarely displayed.
However, even with this intricate look, The Reader leads to more questions than answers, which is what a movie should do. It forces you to examine the conditions of such a life. Would you uncover the truth or allow an affair and love overtake you? Could you still love that person or would you feel ashamed? Overall, the movie probes the question, “what would you have done?”
In those conditions, in that time, could you still stay true to those words?