Please be aware that, of necessity, this article reveals the entire plot of The Reader.
I was interested to read, in our sister-publication The First Post, a digest of the current furore about Kate Winslet’s Academy Award nomination for The Reader. David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s book details the infatuation of a young boy – destined to become a lawyer – with an older woman in 1950s Berlin. The affair is a pivotal point in his life and constitutes his introduction to the world of sexuality and love.
Many years after the affair, the young law student chances to attend a war-crimes trial in which his ex-lover is revealed as a former Nazi guard accused, with five other women, of the murder of Jewish prisoners in their custody.
Some pivotal evidence in the case hinges on the illiteracy that Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) has hidden from the world her whole life, and her refusal to declare it seems the factor that condemns her to a harsher sentence than her co-accused ex-colleagues. Michael Berg (played by David Kross as a younger and Ralph Fiennes as an older man) suddenly understands why Schmitz had him read to her so often during their affair, and why she had the Jewish prisoners in her care do likewise.
Schmitz’s fate continues to haunt Berg over the next few decades of her emotional and actual isolation in prison, and finally he begins to send her packages of tapes of books that he has read into a cassette recorder. Overjoyed and revived by this solitary act of kindness, Schmitz learns to read, and to write letters to Berg, which he does not answer.
At the eve of her release, the prison authorities contact Berg and inform him that Schmitz has no other friends, family or connections in the world besides him, and that if he does not help her to re-establish herself in the outside world, her future is grim. Reluctant to get involved, Berg finally acquiesces. He meets Schmitz in prison and sounds out her broken moral compass about her actions during the war. He can get no further on the matter than the judge did in the war crimes trial; Schmitz, in the edit of the film that finally made it into theatres, has learned to read but not to understand.
Berg makes arrangements for lodging and employment for his ex-love after her release, but she hangs herself the evening before.
The final scenes detail Berg’s attempt to bequeath the money Schmitz left him to the daughter of one of her victims, but he realises that Schmitz has found no compassion anywhere in the world beyond the confines of his own heart. Certainly no forgiveness; the world considered that she had shown no shame for her crimes.
Here’s the thing: The Reader is not about Nazi revisionism nor does it endorse it; it’s not even about Kate Winslet’s character – the emotional core is about Berg and his hard journey to transcendent love. It’s a spiritual journey, not a historical tract.
The trouble is that you can’t use Nazis to tell such stories; it’s too soon, and it will be too soon for a long time yet to come. When Schindler’s List came in for criticism of trivialising or marginalising the experience of holocaust survivors, one Jewish author suggested that the humanity of the story behind it was fine, but that science-fiction or other genres or approaches are more appropriate means to tell such tales. The camps are not suitable background material or ‘context’ for narratives which have other messages to impart, however noble.
In his defence, Bernhard Schlink offers his semi-autobiographical story out of his own personal life-experience. An elliptical approach to the hard subject matter would have lessened the emotional impact of his work and its meaning for him; however many other problems it might have avoided.
The Reader is a film that you can take many different and contrasting messages from, and not all of them are agreeable. From one point of view, Berg’s lifelong devotion to Schmitz portrays a man emotionally and sexually enthralled by an older woman at an impressionable age, and unable to break the bond even when he discovers her monstrous past. From this standpoint, it’s a depressing and dispiriting tale of thraldom. Kinky, even, and that’s totally unacceptable in the context.
I don’t know what to say. That isn’t the film that I saw. For me The Reader depicted one person’s (Berg’s) journey from the love defined by selfishness to an understanding and practice of genuine, transcendent love. Love can’t always transform its object into a prettier shape (it doesn’t do so in The Reader), but then love isn’t a science experiment; it’s a spiritual and ethical force that’s sometimes needed even where it can do no good. The decades of inner conflict which presage Berg’s compulsion to show pity and mercy – where none is due – are the emotional core of the movie, and the antidote to the cruelty and selfishness of the crimes described in the narrative. If this isn’t why the movie was made, I can’t imagine why anyone would have thought it was worth making.
Kate Winslet’s contentious Oscar nomination may be for Best Actress, but her character in The Reader is a supporting one. Unfortunately such sensitive historical matters can’t be relegated to stage-left.