The Reader is a quiet, thoughtful film that begins with a tension of sexual awakening and coming into manhood…and a feeling of tumult to come.
It’s a slow reveal delivered to us intelligently, and requiring the intelligence of the viewer as we discover, for instance Hanna Schmitz’ (played beautifully by Kate Winslet through all her ages) secret…long before it is explicitly revealed on screen or before Michael Berg (whose last name means “mountain” in German…there are many moral mountains here…played with usual intense intelligence by Ralph Fiennes) realizes it himself years later.
From my viewpoint, the movie belongs to Ralph Fiennes and his character Michael Berg. We see him grow from boyhood to manhood…to negotiate the slopes of moral mountains and all too often not have the courage to reach the top of those mountains where he might have seen more clearly, and made way for the redemption of both Hannah and himself. Those are the most painful moments in the film for me. These moments, though (not giving information that could have mitigated Hannah’s sentence…answering her amazingly hard-crafted notes to him…showing her any sign of warmth just before her release)…these lacks show not only his lacks, but the lack of humankind…the kind of lack that allowed ordinary citizens deny the horrific thing that was happening among them that later and forever after would be known as the Holocaust.
I read that Jewish groups are calling The Reader the worst Holocaust movie ever…boycotting the movie…and so forth…feeling that Hannah is too sympathetically portrayed. I don’t feel like that. My sense is that this is one of the most intricate of movies touching of that subject…one showing the interplay and interconnection within a person, people, culture. If Hannah is shown as a human being, then, no harm in that. It’s time to go beyond flat depictions of the parties on either side of that door.