The Reader
 
            Here’s another twist on World War II:  a guard at a concentration camp, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), emerges in post-War Berlin as a tram conductor, taking tickets.  She lives by herself, quietly, in a small apartment.  One afternoon, arriving home from work, she encounters a teenaged boy who appears to be very ill.  She not only cleans up after him, she offers to take him home.  As it turns out, he has contracted scarlet fever, and is bedridden, and isolated, for weeks.  When he finally returns to thank her, they begin a torrid affair.  It’s the first sexual experience for Young Michael Berg (David Kross), and he’s both mesmerized by Hanna’s beauty and confused by her sudden change of moods.  Sometimes she’s very tender, sometimes rough and harsh, but always seems to have a deep anger simmering just below the surface.  She inquires carefully about his literature classes at school, and then insists that he bring the books and read them to her, as a kind of ritual foreplay:  Goethe, Chekhov, Homer----nothing but the classics.  They have their first—and last---argument when he arrives late, and distracted, by his friends at school organizing a birthday party for him.  Sensing (correctly) that he is now interested in someone his own age, she commands him go see his friends, and then, when he returns, she is gone.  Vanished without a trace, or even a note.
            It turns out that there’s good reason Hanna didn’t leave a note---Michael finally figures out, recalling several isolated incidents, that she was illiterate.  Heartsick but unable to talk about it with anyone----his family life stilted, his relationships with his siblings mean-spirited, and his friends awkward and distant, he gladly enrolls in the university, and then law school, immersing himself in his studies.  A brief encounter with a fellow student only reminds him how much he is still grieving.   A small senior seminar embarks on a field trip to a war crimes trial, where he encounters…..you guessed it, Hanna Schmitz, and five other guards, accused of allowing 300 prisoners under their care to burn up during a bombing rather than open the building and allow them to escape.  Hanna openly admits that they chose, together, to not release the prisoners, because they couldn’t then control them, and decided together to falsify the SS report, claiming that they didn’t know until later that the prisoners were locked in.  (Earlier in the trial, when asked how they were able to identify ten prisoners a month who would be removed (and sent to the ovens), the other guards pretend they didn’t know what was happening, but Hanna replies simply, “Others were always coming.  We had to make room for them.”) The other guards turn on her and make her the scapegoat, claiming she was in charge, and that they were only following her orders, and that she alone falsified the report herself.   When asked in court to write something so that they could compare the handwriting, she confesses instead.  It seems she was even more embarrassed about being illiterate than in admitting her culpability in an incident 10 years before, that has just now come to light because a survivor wrote a book.   Everyone else, from the hounding press to the haughty judges to the howling bystanders, is obviously looking for someone to blame, wishing to expunge some of their own guilt in their silent assent.  Michael, for his part, agonizes about whether to come forward and admit his affair, and also state his certainty that Hanna, being illiterate, would not have been able to write the report.  Finally, he decides to do what he has always done:  withdraw. 
            The adult Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), not surprisingly, is a quiet loner who seems to suffer from inner demons.  We first see him ending a relationship that was obviously physically intimate, but about which he possesses no feeling of attachment.  Then, as a barrister, he is also detached, distracted, disheveled, and almost dissolute with constant brooding.  We never meet his ex-wife; we know only that the relationship was short-lived.  We eventually discover that he has a grown daughter, but he isn’t close to her, either.  Agonizingly and painstakingly, he comes around to the realization that we’ve known all along:  he’s never come close to the passion of his first close encounter.  Perhaps he’s idealized it, but his guilt persists enough for him to begin sending Hanna cassette tapes, in prison, of entire books that he reads aloud.  It’s a catharsis for him, and a soothing balm to her.  For years they correspond, he sending books on tape, she returning brief thank-you notes, from painstakingly self-taught literacy, but he still can’t bring himself to see her.  After 20 years, she’s eligible for parole (the other guards got 4 years, she got life), and a prison official calls Michael to inform him that Hanna has no relatives and no visitors, and he is her only contact with the outside, so he needs to come visit her, and then help her with finding a job and a place to stay, otherwise she will be completely lost in the modern world.  Reluctantly, he goes to see her, but discovers that she has aged dramatically, though she still calls him “Kid.”  Can her life be restored?  Can his be redeemed?  Is there hope for any kind of normalcy after such heart-numbing long-term angst?
            “The Reader” is a moving story featuring fine performances; a cinematic experience with strong physical visuals, and even stronger visceral impact.
 
Questions for Discussion:
1)      Have you ever “taken the fall” for someone else?
2)      Has someone else ever “taken the fall” for you?
3)      What do you remember about the first love of your life?
4)      When have you been paralyzed by guilt, but shouldn’t have been?
5)      When have you not felt guilty, but should have?
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas