The Reader is adapted from a novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink (a novel I have not read, and one I must add to my ever growing reading list), whether it is a faithful adaptation, I cannot say. Regardless, the film has powerful messages and raises important moral questions which are incredibly difficult to answer.
The basic plot is easy enough to lay out: it is 1950's Germany; a young boy of fifteen, Michael Berg (David Kross), is sick on the streets, when an older woman in her late thirties, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), finds him and helps him home. After recovering from his illness, Michael goes back to thank Hannah in her home, and an affair begins. It lasts for one summer, and Hanna abruptly leaves without a word. Six years later, Michael, now a law student, comes across his former lover in a war trial, where Hanna is one of six female defendants - all of whom are former guards of the concentration camps. A secret, that Hanna deems so shameful that she would rather be found guilty of mass murder than disclose it, secures the tragedy of this highly emotive and moving film.
The film's narrative is told through flashbacks (though the narrative eventually catches up to the present time) from the older Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) and although it was so many years ago, although it was only one summer in his youth, it becomes evident that he has never moved on and has affected his whole life.
The first warning I would give about this film is to not watch it with your parents or other relatives - the first hour of the film has very graphic sex scenes and includes full frontal male nudity. This part of the film is a bit slow going, and since I had not read a single thing about the film before I sat down (all I knew was that Winslet and Fiennes starred) I began to sigh and wonder if I had unwittingly walked into a softcore porn film. It becomes obvious later on why so much time is spent on the actual affair, so although it gets a bit tiresome, its effects come into play and makes the film a lot more satisfying in its full context.
It is the first time leap, six years after the affair, that the film really begins to pick up. The trial itself is the highlight of the film. It is superbly written and the performances are inspired. The seminars in which the students and their professor discuss the proceedings of the trial is particularly powerful.
There is not one weak performance in sight, and I could not honestly say who out-acted who out of the three leads. Winslet is always reliable, but her turn as Hanna renders her truly deserving of all the nominations (and wins) she has received. Kross depicts the innoncent love of a fifteen year old boy and the pain that ensues with deep authenticity. Fiennes does not get as much screen time, but he captures it everytime he appears, playing as full grown man but still with the sense of innocence and pained youth which he has never quite been able to get away from.
"What would you have done?" Hanna asks the silent stricken courtroom. The sense of human morality, alongside with contemporary and prior laws, authority driven behaviour, duty, obedience and different cultural beliefs are spun into one when the court asks Hanna why she did not unlock the doors to a burning church with hundreds of Jews inside. The certainty and the obviously matter of fact demeanor that Hannah inhabits on trial raises so many questions: who has the right to judge who? Should a court of a different time, of a different social context condemn actions of others made in the past? But in what circumstances should mass murder be left unpunished? Can anyone possibly understand a person like Hanna? Is it the case that somebody like Hanna who could love, who could feel, that a young boy fell in love with, could honestly have killed hundreds of Jews? Were all the guards not really sadists, criminals and cold-hearted, but normal, ordinary people? These are just some of the questions that this film asks, but cannot find answers to. I doubt the audience will be any closer of the answers.
It is these thought-provoking matters coupled with the human aspect of Michael Berg and how the holocaust affects the following generations that truly makes this film unique, inspiring and moving. This film is unmissable and whilst I imagine it will gain some critics by putting concentration camp guards in the position of sympathy, they may well miss the point that it is not so much about understanding Hanna, but following the journey of a boy who unwittingly fell in love with a former SS guard and trying to come to terms with it.