In post-World War II era Germany, young Michael Berg (David Kross) and Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a woman several years his senior, engage in an intimate affair. Michael is a charming boy with childlike excitement for the sexual encounters in which he engages with Hannah, and she, in an attempt to divert her attention from the real world, enjoys being read to from the novels Michael is studying in school.
Hannah disappears suddenly, leaving him devastated and consequently detached in his relationships with women for the rest of his life. Ten years later, Michael attends law school where his class has the opportunity to attend the trial of a number of female guards from a concentration camp who are being tried for their involvement in an event that lead to the death of almost 300 Jews.
The accused leader of these women is none other than Hannah, the woman from Michael’s childhood. Through the course of the trial, the boy realizes a secret that Hannah refuses to divulge, which could solidly disprove her alleged role as the primary culprit in the war crime in question.
Unlike other Holocaust-centered films such as Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, or The Diary of Anne Frank, here the spectator might sympathize with the character usually viewed as the villain.
The role of Hannah has earned Winslet an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress, and it is easy to see why, as she brilliantly plays the character in a way that embodies the stereotype of the stanch German woman. Her seemingly cold exterior does not melt away; even through the trial for her hideous crime she appears unremorseful.
Yet Hannah appeals to our humanity. This is poignantly shown when Hannah is asked by one of her judges why she did not release the Jews before they were killed, her dutiful reply is “What would you have done?”
implying that she was simply doing her job, that her intention was not their destruction.
The Reader, based on the novel Der Vorleser by Berhard Schlink, and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, presents very apparently the feelings of the characters.
Michael’s view of Hannah remains untainted, despite her conviction, and his kindness reins over her throughout her incarceration as he sends her recordings of himself reading the novels they once enjoyed together. Through carefully crafted dialog, often paired with a conflicting emotion being portrayed on the screen, the audience is able to insert themselves emotionally into the story and ultimately care about it.
Despite what is being said on the surface, many lines such as “What we feel is unimportant, it is what we do that is important” and “It does not matter what I feel,” Hannah’s reply to the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes), when asked about her attitude toward her crime, it is blatantly clear that in the end, our feelings are all we have.
This film will undoubtedly and perhaps unbeknownst to some, force reevaluation of feelings historically conditioned and once thought to be concrete. Perhaps people are innately good, even if that goodness exists only in the eyes of one outside person.