Film review: The Reader (2008)

Be warned: I am in the minority here. This film was well received, and in particular it earned Kate Winslet an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Actress. So when I saw it on the movie menu of my flight to the HNS Conference last June, I decided to go for it.

The Reader poster

The Reader poster

The storyline is simple, though made unnecessarily confusing by repeated flashbacks and flash forwards, the detail of which would be too tiresome to recount here. In 1950s West Germany, teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirty-something tramway conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet).

A torrid affair ensues, and the protagonists’ sex ritual includes Micheal reading the classics to Hanna in a bathtub. Michael’s hormone-addled brain malfunctions to the point where he fails to notice that Hanna cannot read a menu during an outing to the countryside. Then she abruptly skips town and breaks off the relationship without any explanation after receiving a promotion to a clerical job.

Flash forward: Michael is now a law student and attends the trial of several women accused, among sundry atrocities, of burning 300 Jews to death in a church. And, lo and behold, here’s Hanna sitting in the dock! She testifies in her defense (no 5th Amendment in Germany) and does not deny the charges. She was doing her job as a guard at Auschwitz, that’s it. She also admits to writing a report on the events on behalf of her fellow guards.

This is the time when Michael belatedly realizes that Hanna is illiterate, hence her fondness for the post-coital reading sessions. He wishes she defended herself against the – false – charge of writing the report, but no, she is apparently too ashamed of her illiteracy to deny that. Note, though, that she is not ashamed of admitting to burning the Jews to death. Everyone has her priorites, I suppose. Hanna receives a life sentence, harsher than those of her former Auschwitz colleagues.

New flash forward: Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, records tapes of the books he used to read to Hanna, and sends them to her in jail. He never seems to reach fulfillment in his life, and moves from a desultory relationship to another. He remains forever haunted by Hanna. But something happens to her in jail: she teaches herself to read and write.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

So why did I find the film so disturbing? I believe my unease was due to the character of Hanna. In the trial scenes she displays a profound moral and emotional imbecility.  She explains why she became a concentration camp guard: not out of enthusiasm for Nazi ideology, or hate of the Jews. No, she needed a job, she applied, she was hired, she performed to the best of abilities. End of story. If anything, one has to grant her an excellent work ethic.

To her, being a tram conductor or burning people to death is one and the same: a job. Some say evil is the failure of empathy. In this sense, Hanna is evil. The only character in the film who seems to perceive this is the presiding judge at her trial, when he states, during the sentencing, that she belongs in a class of her own.

My next cause for puzzlement was Michael’s reaction to this. At least he is, unlike Hanna, appalled by the Holocaust. But he fails to identify the extent of Hanna’s guilt. Who cares if she wrote the report or not? Wasn’t killing the Jews the real issue here? About remorse? She expresses none. She does not appear to feel any either. Michael is apparently still in thrall to Hanna, because he is blinded to all of this. When Thelma Adams sees him as the victim of child abuse, she makes a very good point. Michael did not, and will never recover from his early liaison with Hanna.

But the film does not see it that way. It urges us to pity Hanna. Imagine that: you lock a measly 300 people to in a church, and set the whole thing on fire, and you get a life sentence! This is so unfair. There I balked. All right, she is illiterate, but It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to comprehend that slaughtering innocents is wrong. The film’s illiteracy-as-an-excuse theory is nothing more than a twinkie defense.

Worse, is that supposed to be a metaphor for Nazism in general? I hope not, because the vast majority of those who committed war crimes, or crimes against humanity during World War II, were perfectly literate. Some were even highly educated. No wonder: the Nazi machine was based on meticulous organization and record keeping.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

As for Hanna becoming literate in jail, certainly it is a commendable step, but does she use those years to reflect on what landed her there? Reading the Odyssey is no substitute for growing a conscience. Where is the awakening? If it does happen, it is not shown. It might indirectly be inferred from the provisions of her will, but something explicit, wrenching would have been called for. Hanna never reaches redemption, and her last act is yet another negation of life, of hope.

The real tragedy here, contrary to what the film tries very hard to make us believe, is not Hanna’s illiteracy, it is Nazism, with its cortege of horrors, and her participation in that. But her deeds, such as selecting the women who were going to the gas chambers “because there were too many prisoners,” as she earnestly explains at trial, or the burning of 300 fellow human beings, are not shown. The Holocaust is not denied, it is politely swept under the carpet. The most shocking shot in the entire film is a close-up of “old” Hanna’s deformed feet.

Of course I was left to wonder how on earth this film could have garnered so many nominations and awards. My only guess is that the Academy loves it whenever glamorous actresses such as Ms. Winslet, or Charlize Theron in the 2003 Monster, subject themselves to the indignities of “ugly” make-up. But even that failed to convince: Hanna in her prison uniform was more Halloweenish than moving.

A work of fiction, in film or otherwise, may take liberties with history, but it has to be honest about it. In this regard, Inglourious Basterds was not objectionable because it made it clear that the story it told was not, and could not be true. Likewise, when Mel Brooks directed The History of the World, Part I, no one complained that his depiction of the French Revolution did not hold up to scholarly scrutiny.

The Reader, on the contrary, is dead serious. Ron Rosenbaum, in his review for Slate, used the term “fraudulent.” I agree.

The Reader Kate Winslet

The Reader Kate Winslet

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20 Comments to “Film review: The Reader (2008)”

  1. Himiko Yui says:

    I think that Hanna Schmitz is a metaphor for Germany at the time. It’s a country that works hard and trying to achieve to is best ability. Many people use to the excuse that they were ordered to do so. Michael represents the genertation after the world wars. The relationship between Hanna and Michael is the complexity of the two worlds clashing. Both care about each other but their morals don’t match up. Michael knows Hanna is in the wrong but still continues to care for her. This might have been a big issue when Germany was in the mists of healing. The newer generations admitted to their ancestors
    mistakes and realize the horror however have to painfully deal with the fact people so close to them
    actually committed such crimes.

  2. sachin says:

    bad review ,i agree with linda,i like u linda.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for your insights, Elena! Yes, I believe you should write your own review. From the number of comments here, it is a film that arises very different reactions in viewers.

    The issue of child molestation should indeed be central, and the merit of the recent resurgence of the Polanski rape case has been to remind us of its lasting effects on all concerned, perpetrator and victim. Yet I had the impression here that the tree of illiteracy was made, deliberately so, to hide the forest, from Hanna’s willing participation in the Holocaust to the cold-hearted use of a boy as a sex toy. And her suicide is another issue not resolved to my satisfaction, or yours apparently. All we can tell is there is no redemption in this story.

  4. Well, I watched the film last night. I don’t know whether or not to write my own review, since just about everything positive and negative have already been said. To me, it was a story of various levels of abuse and its repercussions, both on the cosmic scale of the Holocaust and on the private scale of Hanna’s relationship with Michael. Hanna was a professional abuser (and murderess.) I have to say that I agree with Thelma Adams completely. I found the seduction scenes to be sickening. Hanna abused young Michael by becoming physically involved with a boy young enough to be her own son, and then she psychologically abused him as well with her coldness and manipulation. He never got over it but was haunted by the abusive relationship all his life, unable to see it for what it was, and unable to connect with another woman.

    The protagonists in the film seem to be unable to see the great crimes committed but focus instead on Hanna’s illiteracy. On one hand she is cruel as only a complete imbecile can be cruel, and on the other hand she delights in Homer and Chekov, which shows she had a brain somewhere. But the deliberate manner in which conscience is blinded and put to rest, by the German people, by Hanna, and by Michael, is something which still goes on all the time about some of the major issues of our own day.

    I am left pondering many questions. Did Hanna kill herself because she finally felt the weight of her crimes, or because Michael was cold and reserved with her when he visited her in prison? And what was the point of Michael at the end telling his young daughter about his sordid and sick relationship with Hanna? Was it so he could psychologically connect with his daughter at last? A strange scene in a strange film, but thought-provoking nonetheless.

    I see it not so much a film about the Holocaust, like Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice, but a film about the the repercussions of the Holocaust on the generation that followed. Like Ayn Rand penned in the film Love Letters: “A murder goes on being a murder….” A crime, especially a crime of mass murder of apocalyptic proportions, goes on being a crime, and keeps affecting people for many many years to come.

  5. Leslie says:

    Catherine, I had a very hard time with the film as well, mainly I think because Kate Winslet (who can do almost anything) was woefully miscast. Winslet’s stock in trade is her voluptuous vulnerability (even when she plays objectionable people, she makes you understand, if not necessarily sympathize with them). In THE READER she was trying so hard to tamp down her natural instincts as an actress to play a brittle, unredeemable character that is more in the Kristin Scott Thomas bag of tricks. And I kept seeing the seams. I felt as though I was watching an excellent actress try really hard to play a role she very much wanted to nail; but I was always watching the actress’s efforts — never did I believe she was that character.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    I knew I was in the minority! To me Auschwitz was at the center of the film, though it was not shown. As for Hanna’s responsibility, she did admit at trial that she selected the women who were going to the gas chambers. Sure, that was part of the job as a concentration camp guard. The fact that she asks such a question from the judge shows to what extent she remains clueless.

    Yes, I believe that it would be very important if Hanna regretted what she had done. For her victims, of course it is too late, but it would make a fundamental difference to her. I guess it would have helped if I had had some background information on Hanna: why is she so cold? why is she illiterate? Either we are dealing with horrific childhood abuse (but nothing hints at that) or, as a prior commenter remarked, the banality of evil.

  7. Linda says:

    I totally disagree with you. First of all, this is not a film about Auschwitz, Nazis or the WW2. When the film begins we do not even know that Hanna is a former SS guard (if we have not read too detailed reviews before it), and that is the way to watch this film. Not to see her as a monster from the beginning.

    Also I can not see how you can dislike a film based on how a person is in it: “I believe my unease was due to the character of Hanna.”

    As for what you say about Michael I think you are completely wrong. He does not help her when he discovers that she is illiterate – though is is right by law. (Remember the professor’s lecture about law and moral?) He cries for her because he is emotionally involved. By law she would have had the same sentence as everybody else. And how can we be so sure that Hanna is a cold blooded person that should deserve that (more than the rest)? It is not even sure that she did not tell the court that she was illiterate just because she was “ashamed”… Hanna takes her life sentence – alone – and when asked if she regrets anything she replies that it does not change anything. Well, does it? We know nothing of her mind. That said we do not have to love her, or pity her. We do not even have to feel sorry for her “illiteracy” and think that it was the reason behind all the bad she did.

    And there is so much more to the story of the 300 dead. Did she kill them, could she have saved them if she wanted to? She was not the boss, she was not Hitler. About her saying that “it was a job”. What would you call it, if you were her? If you did not know all your duties beforehand, and applied for a job, got it and then had to do some of the things she did? If you did not kill yourself, what lies would you tell yourself? Or as she tells the judge: was she not to apply for the job?

    I completely disagree with you about this film.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Certainly, Susan, the fact that the film sparks discussion on such an important topic is in itself a good point. From there we will simply have to agree to disagree…

  9. Susan says:

    Well the movie takes place after the war is over, so I don’t see why showing her being a Nazi guard is relevant. I’ve not seen Inglorious Basterds, so I don’t know that time frame. In fact, I think if the direct HAD done flashbacks to her Nazi job, he would have been manipulating the audience. The fact that we are talking about this movie in this way, enforces my impression that it IS a good movie.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Elizabeth, you posted your comment while I was responding to Susan! If anything can point out a link to an interview of the director, I would love to hear more clearly what he intended to do, and what he thought of Hanna.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    An interesting position, Susan. So you saw her as a cold-blooded, manipulative monster (as I did) but still found the film worthwhile.

    I reacted differently to the film in that I felt that it was trying to manipulate me into sympathizing with someone totally repellent. I resented that. Ron Rosenbaum, in the review I linked to, refers to the director saying that he did not want to show any Holocaust scenes because it might shift the viewer’s sympathy away from Hanna.

    This is where the film lost me. If it had shown Hanna doing her “job” at Auschwitz, and then tried to make her sympathetic, it might have interested me. This is what Tarentino did in Inglourious Basterds with SS Colonel Landa. Why not? At least we were shown what Landa was capable of, and left to feel whatever we liked about it. Here it seemed to me that the movie was disingenuous.

    We also reacted differently to the character of Michael. To me he never outgrows Hanna, never even realizes what a monster she was. He goes out of his way to carry out her last wishes, and, even though he doesn’t keep in physical contact with her during her prison time, he is still hooked and keeps sending her tapes. Even her death doesn’t free him of her spell. Totally freaky, when you think of it…

  12. Catherine, I agree with Susan,that the script didn’t take a position which is like life. Not every Nazi admits that the Holocaust was wrong. I also agree that she was narcissitic, amoral and manipulative. He wanted her to admit that what she did was wrong but she refuses and he realizes that despite everything she has not changed because she has learned to read, and that she was a monster.

  13. Susan says:

    I disagree. I don’t think the script took a position—it was left to the viewer to take the moral high ground (or not). I watched the movie and was horrified that I was sympathizing with the her. I questioned myself and realized that although she was illiterate, she was narcisstic, manipulative and amoral. That’s what she’d done to the boy. His refusal to resume any kind of relationship with her on any level when she was to be released from prison was his realization of what a monster she was. Just my opinion. I thought it was a great movie–really made me think.

  14. Catherine Delors says:

    Dear Sandra, Kenza, Harlan, Penny, Elisa, Elena – These film reviews seem to be popular, and I am delighted if you enjoyed this one. Thanks so much for your input!

    Penny, I don’t think it is fair to judge a book by its movie adaptation. Maybe the novel is far better than this (or maybe not, I really cannot tell, because I have not read it.)

    Elena, I enjoy your reviews as well. They are quite a bit of work to write, but it is certainly worth sharing our impressions with our readers.

  15. I really do enjoy your movie reviews, Catherine! Thank you!

  16. Elisa says:

    I remember the reviewer for the “Washington Post” didn’t like it much either.
    As Penny mentions, there’s a novel by Bernhard Schlink, a German judge and law professor. Originally published in 1995, the novel was a departure from his other novels and was given several awards in Germany. I remember seeing the book come up for request by library patrons around the time the movie was released.

  17. Penny says:

    thank you for the review. i think i can miss this movie. i have the book but now i do not want to read it either. there is too much hate in the world and some of it is coming to Brooklyn 1-3miles from my abode to pickett at synogogues. the police have warned my synogogue that we might also be picketed as spillover from the other synogogues in the area. i am frightened. i think i maybe sleeping with the raggedy ann my mother made for me over 40 yrs ago. this movie makes no sense.sorry but this the Jewish holiday season. Nazis used to do their worst on those days. now it begins again. they were here in June, now they return during the holiest of times for Jews.

  18. Harlan Lewin says:

    I haven’t seen The Reader but it sounds to me that it’s a film version of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” that she put forward in Eichmann in Jerusalem. I saw the same attitude in Other People’s Lives about the Stasi police in East Germany. Arendt’s idea disturbed a lot of people. It’s bad enough to turn our eyes away from evil when we can’t do anything about it. But it’s madness to join it for a job. There are a lot of morally empty people–like serial killers and the calmer ones are people like the woman in The Reader.

  19. Kenza says:

    Bonsoir Ma chère Catherine,
    J’ai vu ce film, il est magnifique, déchirant et bouleversant! Et les acteurs sont impressionnants!! Merci d’en parler, il le mérite…
    Très amicalement,
    Kenza

  20. Sandra Jonas says:

    Thank you for this post. I had many of the same feelings about that movie. Since it was so critically acclaimed I was wondering what I had missed. Clearly nothing, as you have so well articulated.

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