Schlink on the Screen

A close adaptation of the book, the Reader is an exploration of the post-war German psyche hanging heavy with the past

Ralph Fiennes (left); Kate Winslet and David Kross (above) in The Reader | Photos: Mirage Enterprises


The Reader

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader | Photos: Mirage Enterprises

Directed by Stephen Daldry, The Reader is based on the award-winning bestseller by German law professor Bernhard Schlink. First published in 1995 and translated into English in 1997 by Carol Brown Janeway, it was the first German novel to top the New York Times bestseller list and has become a set text on schools and university syllabi.

The film is a successful and close adaptation of the book; compelling, thought provoking, and memorable. Kate Winslet’s masterful and intense performance as Hanna brought her first Oscar, and the film was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The novel belongs to a genre of German fiction called ‘father literature,’ in which the post-war generation tries to come to terms with the roles their parents played in National Socialism and the Holocaust. It is a morally complex work, challenging and controversial – a love story, an examination of the human motivation, a critique of the judicial system, and an exploration of the post-war German psyche hanging heavy with the legacy of the past.

However, it is as a personalized account of the muddled role of an ordinary person in the Holocaust that the novel has received the most vocal criticism, accused of playing down the evils of the camps. One is tempted, with all due respect, to question if any of these critics have actually read the book. Perhaps this fine film will help bring the issues raised to an even broader audience and provoke the widest possible discussion.

We first meet narrator Michael Berg in the Germany of 1995, now a successful lawyer played by Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes captures the haunting emotional numbness of Berg, he is distant, carrying an inner pain and sadness that dislocates him and prevents him forming meaningful relationships. Through flashbacks and returns, we gradually learn how Michael came to be the man he is.

In post-war Germany, a 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) is suddenly taken ill on the street near the entrance to an apartment building and is helped home by a woman who lives there. Months later, recovered from scarlet fever, he returns to thank her.  Hanna, (Kate Winslet) is, at 36, more than twice his age but still, a charged sexual attraction passes between them, and Hanna invites the boy into willing mutual seduction. The relationship develops and Hanna, who works as a tram conductor, loves to be read to, perhaps nearly as much as she enjoys sex. She is enthralled as Michael reads to her from the The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn and the The Lady with the Little Dog. The affair lasts through the summer, until Hanna suddenly disappears without a trace.

Winslet and Kross are at ease in these early sensual scenes where there is a great deal of nudity. Hanna is Michael’s first love and the film captures perfectly his wonderful boyish enthusiasm to rush to her when school is finished – riding his bicycle as fast as he can. These scenes show a relationship on the periphery, not destined to exist beyond Hanna’s apartment. They also work as a powerful contrast to the rest of the film. We have empathy for Hanna as an ordinary person, because we can only ‘know’ her from these early scenes, working on the trams and as Michael’s lover. The rest of the story demands that we imagine her actions because we are not shown what she is accused of doing.

Years pass, and we next see the 22-year-old Michael at law school, where a professor arranges for the class to attend a war crimes trial, where six former SS guards are charged with murder.  Michael is totally stunned to see Hanna as one of the defendants. He is too ashamed to reveal his affair, torn between protecting the woman he loved and recoiling from the horror of her deeds.

Ralph Fiennes | Photos: Mirage Enterprises

Under questioning, Hanna is revealed as a simple person, largely ignorant of the consequences of her role during the war. She struggles to explain her duty as a guard; if she had let a certain group of women out of a burning church there would have been chaos. Listening to her confused testimony and ignorance of the law, it dawns on Michael that Hanna has never read the charges against her. She is illiterate.

“So you had a choice,” the judge retorts, “And you chose to let them die.” Hanna is perplexed.

“What would you have done?” she asks the judge twice. There is silence and the judge looks down, unable to answer.

Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment. As a result of her shame at being unable to read or write, she lets the weight of the crime fall on her. Michael realises her illiteracy has profoundly affected her actions and fatally undermined her defence.

Michael goes back to life at the university, gets married and has a daughter. But nothing feels right. Consciously or otherwise, his connection to Hanna continues to define him. Later, he records books on tape and sends these to her in prison. Through these tapes she slowly learns to read. What she reads are histories and memoirs of the camps.

Hanna’s illiteracy is synonymous with denial and further echoes the Third Reich’s moral illiteracy, as Hanna and Michael are emblematic of two generations of Germans dealing with the issues of guilt and remorse. Winslet’s powerful performance conveys Hanna’s strength, calculation, despair, vulnerability and self-disgust. She is not a caricature of evil but an ordinary person in a world she does not understand, unable to live a moral life.

The film’s symbols are complex and subtle, with literature itself shown as having the power to redeem and elevate. Through expanding her mind Hanna comes to understand and accept responsibility for her actions. Thus it seems particularly poignant that when she takes her own life she is standing on top of a pile of books.

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