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The original book The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was written in the first person of Michael Berg looking back on his past. While the movie still gives him the main part, it inevitably equalizes among the different characters, especially since it avoids a voiceover by him. The writer, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, face an especially difficult task is portraying the relationship between Michael at 15 and the then 36-year-old Hanna, to make the romance believable while at the same time seeding enough reason to believe the eventual revelation that he was deeply damaged by this relationship. Kate Winslet's Hanna is an especially complex character, often abrupt and defensive, and deeply hurtful, yet also capable of being deeply moved by literature and music. She is working class, working as a tram conductor, and deeply ashamed of her illiteracy, while Michael is the son of a university professor, living in a nice house full of books. She lives on her own and seems very isolated, while he is surrounded by friends. So he has many advantages that she lacks, and this makes their relationship more balanced. She seems to find it difficult to make an emotional connection, while he is just young and unprepared for an intense sexual relationship. She seems damaged at the start, and it is more her emotional problems than her age that hurt Michael in the long term.
Later on, after the Second World War is over, we see Hanna as a defendant at a trial for war criminals, and she seems to show a basic lack of understanding of how other people will see her. She knows what she has done and the role she played in the deaths of prisoners, but she seems not to see her own actions as especially bad. It is hard to say if she is evil -- she describes herself as just doing her job and does not really show any concern for the welfare of others. It is as if she lacks the imaginative capacity to understand the pain of other people. Yet we know that she is capable of some kind of human relationship and empathetic understanding. When she takes the major part of the blame for the war crimes she committed along with other women, her actions seem caused by her own embarrassment over her illiteracy and her failure to anticipate the readiness of the other defendants to place the blame on her. She seems a little slow. Michael watches the proceedings and does not do anything, when she does not deserve a harsher punishment than the others, and he was in a position to stop the injustice. His motives are not clear in the film, but he may be motivated by bitterness about their past relationship and the way she hurt him. While in the book he has a discussion with his philosopher father, the film completely omits this, and Michael's inaction is harder to understand.
We only see a little of Michael's adult life, but we know he has a daughter, his marriage didn't last long, and he is unable to sustain a successful relationship. His greatest emotional investment, aside from his daughter, is still in Hanna. He starts to make tapes of the books he read to her when he was a teenager, and he puts great care and effort into this for many years, send them to her in prison. She takes great pleasure in them, and eventually uses them to teach herself to read. So their love persists through the years, despite both of them now being deeply damaged individuals. It may be the most important thing in both their lives, which they both keep a strict secret, and while there's is some indication that he maintains his anger with her through the rest of his life, he also cannot let go of her.
In the DVD extras, director Stephen Daldry of course says that Ralph Fiennes was always the only choice for the character of Michael, but his fragile and resentful sorrowfulness does not convey very much in the way of explanation. Kate Winslett as the old Hanna is notable for the use of makeup that ages her well, and she seems to be as uninterested in expressing regret for her previous behavior as she was at her trial. Neither actor for this later period in their lives shows much more than a haunted gloominess, except for Hanna's pride in her having taught herself to read. At the very end of the film, Michael starts to open up to his daughter about his secret relationship, and this is obviously meant to be a sign of progress, but this feels like a sop to Hollywood so as to avoid too despairing an ending.
The film is two hours long, and there are about 40 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD, so it could have been a much longer work. They are often interesting scenes but they clarify much about Michael or Hanna's motivations, except that it becomes clearer that she cherished her relationship with him throughout her time in prison. While there is no commentary, there are several other extras which are illuminating about the making of the film
The film does suffer in its second half from being a long dirge, especially with the dwelling on Fiennes' finely chiseled misery, but this is still fascinating, with its theme of how younger German people find it difficult to understand the actions of their parents' generation, and the difficulty of understanding evil.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.