After the moving Billy Elliot in 2000 – the story of a little boy who wanted to become a ballet-dancer – and the outstanding The Hours in 2003 – a brilliant adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel –, the British director Stephen Daldry has once again released a new masterpiece: The Reader.
One can say that Daldry is one of the best when it comes to adapting a novel for the cinema: those who like the book of the German writer Bernhard Schlink will not be disappointed. What is more, Daldry has a great sense of staging. His stories have a particular genuineness that can do nothing but seduce you. The drab and almost grey photography brings you back to post-war Germany rising from its ashes. The music is soft, beautiful, but never invasive. It takes you by the hand and accompanies the viewer and the characters in their peregrinations.
But the best asset of this movie is its casting. A tormented and cold Kate Winslet – academy award winner – gives the line to a “haunted by the past” Ralph Fiennes. Not to mention the young David Kross, sparkling with sincerity, who takes on his shoulders one of the leading roles of the movie.
The Reader is an interesting story because it can be read at two different levels. At first sight, it is a love story. But it is a particular one. In 1959, the young Michael Berg falls in love with Hanna, a woman who helped him a few months earlier when he was sick. This almost incestuous passion – Hanna is as old as Michael's mother – lasts only one summer. A strange kind of ritual takes place: every day, Michael goes to Hanna's apartment, they wash each other, Michael reads out to her, they make love and then they lie on the bed, side by side. This strange relationship suddenly breaks up when Hanna, without warning, suddenly disappears to never come back again. This loss ruins Michael's life forever: he will never be able to really love a woman again. He will always try to find a “new” Hanna, a woman who looks like her, smells like her, moves like her. But his quest is hopeless.
However, the story does not end there. Seven years later, Michael and Hanna see each other again... in court. Hanna and a few other women are accused to have killed hundreds of people when they were guards in a concentration camp. Michael, now a law-student, is completely devastated by this revelation. During the trial, he also discovers Hanna's secret.
This secret could reduce the sentence, but Hanna prefers being regarded as a criminal rather than revealing it. She is sentenced to life-imprisonment.
What is so particular and interesting about this movie is that it can be read at a second level. The Reader is not only a love-story, it is above all a comment on the post-war culpability of young Germany. This subject is omnipresent in the movie, even if it becomes apparent only in the second part, during the trial for crime against humanity. The story raises an essential question: how can we live after the horrors that we have committed ? Two generations are concerned by that question. Firstly, the old generation, who went through the war: Hanna, but also Michael's parents and teachers. This generation is divided in three groups: the culprits, the victims and the others, those who did not kill anybody but who did not do anything either to prevent these murders. Has that last group the right to try and sentence the culprits? Are they not also culprits because they agreed to the regime or because they knew there were camps but refused to act?
Michael's generation is also concerned by this question. They are all children of one of the above-mentioned categories. As far as Michael is concerned, his father did not take part in the massacre, but Michael feels guilty because he is in love with a murderer. He has to face a Cornelian dilemma: that of judgment or forgiveness.
“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding … I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.” (extract from The Reader, by Bernhard Schlinck, p. 157)
Many years after the trial, Michael tells his story for the first time. He also wants to decide whether Hanna's secret could reduce her culpability. But is any excuse valid enough to wipe away the weight of murder?
Go and see the movie to make your own opinion; you won’t regret it! As you leave the cinema, you will perhaps feel uncomfortable, Hanna's question echoing through your mind:
“What would you have done?”