Smile Politely

Emotional Estrangement and The Reader

In 1958 Germany, young Michael Berg (David Kross), sick and disoriented, lurches off a tram to vomit and take refuge in an alley. He is found by a tram conductor, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who lives in the nearby apartment building. She comes to his rescue and directs him home. Michael convalesces for nearly three months, ill with scarlet fever. When he returns to the apartment building to thank Hanna, Michael is calculatedly seduced by her in a gasp-worthy bathtub scene. Thus begins The Reader, and so begins an illicit, tormented affair centered on sexual exploration for the virginal Michael, and classical literature for Hannah, who insists that Michael read to her from novels from his school curriculum, including Anton Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence, before they have sex.

Ever elusive and mysterious, Hannah guards herself from Michael, never allowing an emotional connection to flourish. After she and Michael engage in a few petty arguments and Hannah is offered a promotion at work, she abruptly disappears as suddenly and unexpectedly as she had come into his life. Michael is heartbroken and devastated.

Years later, Michael is a law student. While enrolled in a prestigious seminar where his attendance is required at a trial for women accused of heinous Nazi war crimes, Michael is stunned to see that his former mysterious lover, Hanna, is one of the defendants. As the trial unfolds and Michael is forced to witness, he begins to learn about the woman that he loved, and realizes that he harbors a secret that could be her salvation.

At times, The Reader is both haunting and lyrical. Winslet delivers an arresting performance as the complex Hannah, which recently won her a Golden Globe. Kross is also noteworthy as her young teenage lover, Michael. However, the film fails to connect emotionally with the viewer, mirroring Michael’s own emotional estrangement from Hannah. Just why is Michael so tormented by Hannah’s resurgence in his life? Although it is normal to hold a special place in your heart for your first love, the adult Michael (played by a pained-looking Ralph Fiennes) seems completely unable to sustain relationships with women. His failed marriage, strained relationship with his daughter and coolness with his lover seem to testify to his inability to emotionally connect with women. Why has Hannah had such a profound effect on his life? Why has he not moved on from this experience? And most importantly, why does Michael feel such compassion for Hanna’s circumstances? Aren’t Nazi war crimes the ultimate deal breaker?

Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader, on which the film was based, seems to offer a more in-depth look into Michael and Hanna’s unconventional relationship, and the issue of German guilt over the Holocaust is also given a worthy exploration. However, the film alone can be likened to a puzzle missing a few critical pieces, not allowing the entire picture to come into focus. The overall experience itself, therefore, is rendered somewhat disappointing.

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