Bernhard Schlink, a professor of public law and the philosophy of law in Berlin, speaking through one of his characters in his best-selling novel, The Reader, writes that, "Societies think they operate by morality, but they don't." The line is also given in the trailer of the film, "The Reader." But the movie, as a whole, goes on to say that what society really operates by is the law.
That's one of the important concepts to take away from this new film directed by Stephen Daldry and adapted for the screen by David Hare. Daldry's "The Hours" (2002), taken from Michael Cunningham's jolting novel, was also Hare's handiwork.
In English, "The Reader" takes place in Berlin, Neustadt and New York City with flashbacks and flashforwards from 1958 through about 1995. It tells the tale of a proletarian woman of 36 and her passionate affair with a teenage boy from an upper-middle class family. It starts quite by accident and with an act of grace in the pouring rain.
The boy, Michael Berg (David Kross), stumbles into an entryway of the apartment building where Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) lives. Showing great distress, he vomits. Hanna happens by just then, on her way upstairs. She stops and comforts this boy she's never seen before; wipes his face and gives him a strong hug, telling him, "You'll be alright."
Turns out he's seriously ill with scarlet fever. Some months go by before he recovers in his comfortable home where he lives with his parents and sisters. As his health is nearly regained, Michael's mother urges him to go and thank the lady for her kindness. He returns to Hanna's apartment with a bouquet in his hand and gratitude in his heart. Then, lust soon blossoms between the unlikely pair.
Michael seems a changed young man after his first encounter with Hanna. Even his family sees something different in him. The boy slips away each afternoon after school to be with Hanna before going on home. It's their secret.
Love blossoms too as Michael begins reading to Hanna from the books he's been assigned for his lessons. She seems as though she's never before been taken away by the narrative from a stirring novel, great poetry or classic piece of literature. She thrives on it as much as the physical part of their relationship.
Fast-forward, please. Michael is now in law school. One of his professors is Dr. Rohl (Bruno Ganz). A class assignment is to witness an actual trial being conducted which involves several defendants who've been charged with crimes relating to Nazi treatment of prisoners at Auschwitz in WWII.
Michael looks down from the courtroom balcony and realizes that Hanna is one of the defendants. She's charged with heinous acts that occurred before he had ever met and fell in love with her on that rainy day---with scarlet fever. There's confusion in Michael's mind. Professor Rohl sees it, but doesn't know what's wrong.
I'm a child of the Great Depression. My first memories are always accompanied by impressions of Glenn Miller's music and my uncle from Emporia, Kansas fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, or one of my sandbox playmates having a dad who got wounded on Iwo Jima and another whose cousin never came back. So, getting inside Hanna Schmitz's brain, for me, was engrossing.
Hanna is like most of my relatives and me: proletarian retailers and blue collar workers; none of us from the class of Michael Berg. So it is that Bernhard Schlink's novel and David Hare's elegantly unfolding adaptation of it have enlightened me about how a simple but responsible, poor, uneducated female's mind evolved in the tumult between the wars, during WWII---and on later into the 20th century. I have empathy for Hanna's shame now even as I remember mourning the mass extermination of Jews when I was a boy, whom, if he'd been born in Germany, may have thought like her or fallen victim to such thinking.
But isn't that what great literature and the humanities can do for us who are able to avail ourselves to what they impart? As Lewis Meyer used to put it more succinctly, "The more books you read, the taller you grow." Bernard Schlink, David Hare and director, Stephen Daldry know that, as do the fine cast of characters.
David Kross as young Michael stands as tall as anyone in "The Reader." A tall order, since the talented Kate Winslet is perfect as Hanna and the staunch Ralph Fiennes is as good and intense as ever. Then, there's my favorite European heavy, Bruno Ganz, breathing the very essence of what, for me, is the disciplined, yet liberal professor who genuinely cares about students enriching their lives (not just their bank accounts) with intellect through study.
"The Reader" is one of the best pictures I've seen this year. I've just checked out the novel. As with the film, I don't think I'll be disappointed.