Film review: The Reader (2008), directed by Stephen Daldry
In Berlin in 1995, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) reminisces about a summer, a long time ago …
In 1958, Michael Berg (David Kross) is fifteen years old. On his way home from school one day, he’s ill. He stops in an archway, throws up, and a woman (Kate Winslet) living in the building takes him home.
After recovering from scarlet fever, Michael goes to thank the woman for helping him. The woman, it turns out, is called Hanna, she’s 36, and to make a long story short, the two end up in bed together. Michael is besotted with this older, experienced woman, who likes having him read to her.
But eventually, the summer’s over, and she disappears out of his life, leaving him suitably emotionally traumatised. A few years later, Michael’s a law student, and his professor (Bruno Ganz) takes the small class to sit in on the trial of a group of female concentration camp guards … and there’s a familiar face among the accused …
Also starring Lena Olin as Rose Mather and the adult Ilana Mather.
Because the description of this film gives away a part of Hanna’s past, all I was really waiting for was for Michael – and the viewer – to find out about it. Other than that, I had no idea what it was about. Apparently a film about the sexual relations between a teenaged boy and a grown woman. Oookay then.
As Michael gets older, and we get to the trial, it becomes really interesting because we find out more about her, and her past, and how this affects Michael, who obviously had no idea. And then the adult Michael, what he does … The Reader is a very peculiar love story. And it’s touching, in ways it’s hard to find words for. It raises so many questions. From the simple ones like why didn’t he do this, why didn’t she do that … to the difficult ones, like “could a person like that ever be forgiven?”
The Reader also has plenty of symbolism, but that’s the sort of thing I don’t tend to pick up on, so most of that was probably lost on me. Like how the recurring bathing was a symbol of purification, and so on. Or that it’s about the post-war generation and the pre-war generation coming to terms with guilt. (I might have read some threads on the IMDb message board before writing this review.) But, y’know, if you notice these sorts of things, you would have plenty to notice, it would seem.
Anyway. I really enjoyed this film, although “enjoy” isn’t necessarily the right word. It’s a very good film, David Kross (spitting image of a young Heath Ledger!) is great, so are Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. The only improvement to this film I can think of would be to have people actually speak German instead of English with German accents, seeing as how most of the cast are native German speakers, except Winslet, Fiennes, and Olin. Olin has in fact more of a Swedish accent, which made me go “hey, wait a minute, is that Lena Olin?!” And yes, the credits confirmed it.
Word of caution for those who need it: there is nudity in this film, and there are people having sex. Not graphically so, but if you’re uncomfortable with people taking their clothes off, odds are you’ll have issues with the rest as well.
The Reader is hauntingly beautiful and strangely mesmerising. Well worth the awards.
4.8 out of 5 cassette tapes.