The Reader (2008) is based on the book by Bernhard Schlink and tells the story of German lawyer Michael Berg (David Kross/Ralph Fiennes), who as a teenager has an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). The affair comes to an abrupt end when she disappears and it is only years later that Michael discovers her again: on trial accused of war crimes committed while she was a Nazi concentration camp guard. Michael’s legal training obliges him to watch her trial while hiding his history with Hanna from his professor and fellow students. Hanna admits her part in the Nazi extermination machine, something her co-defendants deny, and they attempt to pin the responsibility on her. Michael finds that he alone knows a secret about Hanna that could help her at the trial.
The Reader was Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack’s last film, both producers dying before it’s release. Kate Winslet won a well deserved BAFTA and an Oscar for her portrayal of Hanna.The Director Stephen Daldry was nominated for a BAFTA, Golden Globe and an Oscar for the film and it comes as a surprise that he didn’t win any. He should have. The film is gripping. It is also constantly provoking: for example Michael is 15 when Hanna seduces him (although the actor doesn’t look it), young enough to put a question mark over Hanna’s morals long before we discover her past. In fact the main themes of the film are provoking in themselves: how the German people coped with the legacy of the Holocaust and how this impacts us all. Hanna is dealt with without sympathy and yet she poses a question about how we judge those who have committed evil acts: are they themselves evil? Do we demonise them in order to distance ourselves from them? Was Nazi Germany an anomaly or could it happen again? The answer is, unfortunately, that if we don’t learn from the past we are destined to repeat it.