At Pivotal Points in One's Life Choices Matter
In the melodrama "The Reader," the choices made by the two central characters, when both were in their young twenties, greatly influenced the lives of others, and consequently, their lives as well. The film's story begins in West Berlin in 1958, with Hanna Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet (who won the Oscar for Best female Actor in a Leading Role for this role) and Michael Berg, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes as the adult and David Kross as the younger boy / man, discovering that they have a strong attraction for each other. Hanna is attracted to Michael's youth and Michael is attracted to the fine figure of an older, experienced woman. If this sounds like a fair trade off, it isn't. It is obviously a bad decision for both parties.
At this nexus when their paths cross, Hanna Schmidt at 36 years old, is a public transportation ticket puncher and Michael Berg is an adolescent boy, whose boyish curiosity got the better of him, and he inadvertently becomes the lover of this older woman. After their intimacies, Michael would read to Hanna, which seemed to please her as much as the coitus. Was it his young supple flesh, or was it his ability to read aloud classic books with great enthusiasm, while in his older lover's bed that created her interest in Michael, irrespective of the disparity in their ages? Probably a dash of both; regardless, it was a terrible decision for the elder Hanna, but not her worst decision - not by half.
Hanna Schmitz was born in post World War I Germany in 1922. For whatever reason, she never learns to read or write, and to compensate for her inadequacy, she develops a strong adherence to certain good German qualities such as: work ethic, loyalty, pride in tasks, cleanliness, honesty and ancestral stoicism. One would think in that era these qualities would sustain her, but in fact, they become her undoing.
Hanna is conflicted in that her pride, as a product of these good German qualities, creates within her the need to hide her failing of illiteracy. At the age of 22, Hanna, with World War II raging and the German Wehrmacht at an inflexion point in North Africa and Russia, chose to join the Waffen SS as a guard assigned to Auschwitz, rather than accept a promotion to office work as an employee with war contractor Siemens. She makes this career choice solely based on continuing her secrecy of her profound illiteracy.
Talk about backing the wrong horse in this race. The really sad part is that Hanna employs her good German qualities to become a loyal and efficient guard. The Jews and Gypsy's and Poles, and whomever else that Hitler and his henchmen wanted in this concentration camp, never stood a chance with young Hanna guarding them. 21 years after the end of the war, and 8 years after her dalliances with the adolescent Michael, Hanna is charged with war crimes by the West German government. It is the consequence of a young survivor of the death camp, who names Hanna and five other guards in her cathartic book detailing her terrible childhood in Auschwitz.
At this time Michael Berg is in law school. His law professor interjects him into the ethical theory incumbent in this high profile case, but to no avail. When Hanna is implicated by her fellow defendants of writing their account of an event that, by their neglect, made the "Final Solution" even more efficient, she is incapable of defending herself because of her stoic German pride. During the trial, Michael realizes that the reason Hanna enjoyed his reading so much is because she couldn't read, and therefore, could have never written any such report. Hanna is too proud to admit that she is illiterate, and too honest to not admit to her loyal proficiency as a guard. She is doomed by her good German qualities, similar to her good nation being incapable of shaking the manic vision of the Madman Hitler. She is also doomed by the fact that Michael cannot bring himself to share his knowledge of her illiteracy with the court. Michael is obviously ashamed of his lost virginity to a good woman, who participated in some terrible deeds on the behalf of others.
The moral conflict and question is: how do these central characters, at their respective critical points in their young lives, deal with their separate realties? Hanna is illiterate, but virtuous in the context of her German heritage, and wrongly decides to follow her wrongful nation to her and its demise. The younger Michael is very intelligent, but lacks the courage to stand for the truth as he strives to join the profession, whose very purpose is to devise the truth. One has to wonder at what point is there moral equivalency?
In understanding the symbolic qualities deep within the historical context of this film, one can make the argument that Director Stephen Daldry's adaptation of David Hare's screenplay of the widely read Bernhard Schlink book, is an important film. The problem is at 124 minutes, and much too much time for Michael and Hanna to be nude and in their various positions of coitus, the film becomes a bit plodding in the telling of this good story. I'm no prude. I just have to wonder how much of that time could been better spent delving into the resolving of these multiple conflicts.
Rated R. Released on DVD April 14, 2009.