To say that Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader is a love story that turns into a Holocaust novel may be glib, but it isn’t completely inaccurate. The plot unfolds in two distinct sections. First, in the late 1950s, a German youngster of fifteen, Michael Berg, has an intensely sexual affair with a thirtyish streetcar conductor named Hanna Schmitz. After a summer of bedroom gymnastics and emotional bonding cemented, at her request, by the boy’s reading aloud to her from classic books, Hanna leaves town without warning or explanation. Michael feels not only abandoned but also so wounded that he becomes permanently shy of emotional attachments. End of part one.
Eight years later, Michael, now a law student, attends the war-crimes trial of several female SS guards accused of letting Jewish women and children burn to death in a locked church during an Allied firebombing. Hanna is among those in the dock, and the other defendants insist that she was the leader of the guards and the author of a self-exculpating report. Since she ceases to defend herself once the subject of the report is broached, Hanna gets a life sentence while the other defendants get more lenient prison terms.
Piecing together the court’s evidence with his memories of Hanna’s behavior during their affair, Michael realizes that his former lover is illiterate, that she therefore couldn’t have written the report, and that her almost pathological shame about her disability has made her unwilling to defend herself. Emotionally frozen, he doesn’t reveal his deduction to the court, nor does he directly communicate with Hanna in prison, although he constantly mails her his recordings of literary classics, from which she teaches herself to read. When she is granted parole after eighteen years, Michael takes responsibility for her upcoming civilian readjustment, and only then does he come face to face with her. His coldness withers Hanna and she commits suicide just before her release. So, at its conclusion, The Reader is revealed as Michael’s belated attempt to come to terms with an experience he has long kept at arm’s length.
The love story of the first eighty-five pages is mesmerizing: erotic, tender, and psychologically true in its mysteriousness. However, once the trial begins, problems set in that are not only artistic but ethical. Hanna’s illiteracy may explain her abandoning the affair, for she was also fleeing a job promotion that would have exposed her handicap. But when Schlink employs that motive to make Hanna seem like a scapegoat for the other guards, we must ask in what important way is she scapegoated. When asked why she didn’t unlock the church doors, she protests that had she done so, the few guards couldn’t have controlled the many prisoners. So women and children were burned to death to preserve order? Isn’t this an example of that old cliché that Germans prefer orderliness to humanity? True, she took the SS job because she was illiterate (for the job required no reading skill), but literacy isn’t necessary to respond to the cries of unfortunates amid flames. It is an injustice that the other defendants escaped full punishment by falsely attributing leadership to Hanna, but surely all the guards, including Hanna, deserved life imprisonment.
Nevertheless, Schlink’s real theme is not the apportioning of guilt but the duty of young Germans to use neither forgiveness nor blanket condemnation to distance themselves from their elders and from German history: “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.” The Reader may be flawed and a tad gimmicky, but the cumulative effect is powerful—indeed unforgettable.
Now we have the film adaptation, written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry (the same team responsible for the excellent 2002 rendering of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). The movie carries over the dicey elements of the book and even intensifies them.
For starters, there is the casting of Kate Winslet as Hanna. A fine and steadily improving actress, she has successfully portrayed very different women, but Hanna needs qualities that don’t seem to be within Winslet’s range yet: a darkness, a truculence, a deeply embedded inarticulateness, and frustration at that inarticulateness that may sometimes relieve itself in violence. If I had to pick an actress to embody post-second-wave feminism, I would choose the irrepressibly bright, articulate, outgoing, hyper-educated Winslet...which makes her a disaster as the withdrawn, often confused, always instinctive Hanna. (Of course, it would have been a bigger disaster if the producers had signed their original choice for the role—Nicole Kidman.)
But the script further distorts the character by certain eliminations and additions. For instance, during a quarrel, Hanna strikes the boy. In the movie, it’s an ordinary, open-palmed slap, but in the book it’s a savage blow delivered with a belt that draws blood. And various incidents and details supplied by Schlink make it clear Hanna likes manipulating Michael as a sort of boy-toy (though she also has real affection for him). So when the truth about Hanna’s past emerges in the novel, it may be shocking but it’s not unbelievable, because we have already encountered her dark side. Winslet’s Hanna, on the other hand, is so tender, compassionate, and vulnerable that the SS revelation provokes incredulity.
Hare also softens Michael’s torment. At the end of the novel, the now middle-aged Michael concludes, “Maybe I did write our story to be free of it, even if I never can be.” But at the movie’s fade-out he is about to recount his past to his estranged daughter in order to account for his failings as a father. Thus the film becomes not just an attempt at an emotional purge but family therapy as well. The drawback here is not that the movie’s denouement is more upbeat than the book’s but that it blurs Schlink’s real theme: the need for Michael’s generation (which is, of course, the author’s) to confront its elders.
It must also be said that many aspects of the story are well served by the film. The photography by two masters, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, bathes the erotic scenes in a rosy, womb-like glow that evokes both Michael’s sexual awakening and Hanna’s secretiveness. The editing by Claire Simpson keeps the interweaving of time strands coherent (Hare’s script is a lot less linear than the book), and can encapsulate what’s going on in Michael’s mind with a few well-timed reaction shots. When the youth gazes at his siblings being their innocently obnoxious selves around the dinner table while he is daydreaming about his latest tryst with Hanna, the alternation of those childish faces with flashes of the remembered lovemaking perfectly conveys the idea that Michael has lurched into adulthood prematurely.
As the younger Michael, David Kross adequately conveys the boy’s recessiveness but, alas, he is also a bit of a blob. Playing the adult Berg, Ralph Fiennes consolidates his career as Weary Modern Man, though all the angst-ridden, silently suffering roles he has taken on are drying out this actor’s talent, with his voice taking on a monotonous, pinched quality and his beady stare becoming more than a bit of a bore. Fiennes is at his best playing monsters, as in Schindler’s List, In Bruges, and Red Dragon, and I eagerly anticipate his next gangster or serial killer.
In the supporting cast, two dependable veterans shine. Bruno Ganz makes Michael’s law professor a sort of Virgilian guide into the Holocaust inferno; and Lena Olin, as a death-camp survivor who becomes the steeliest of mother confessors for the hero, walks the line between compassion and irony with perfect balance.
Related: Rand Richards Cooper reviews The Hours