The Reader (2008 film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Reader is a 2008 drama film based on the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. The film was written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry. Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet star along with the young actor David Kross. It was the last film for producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who both died before it was released. Production began in Germany in September 2007, and the film opened in limited release on December 10, 2008.

It tells the story of Michael Berg, a German lawyer who as a mid-teenager in 1958 had an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, who then disappeared only to resurface years later as one of the defendants in a war crimes trial stemming from her actions as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. Michael realizes that Hanna is keeping a personal secret she believes is worse than her Nazi past—a secret which, if revealed, could help her at the trial.

Winslet and Kross, who plays the young Michael, received much praise for their performances; Winslet won a number of awards for her role, including the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself was nominated for several other major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.


The Reader begins in 1995 Berlin, where Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), a lawyer, is preparing breakfast for a woman who spent the night with him. After she leaves, Michael watches an S-Bahn pass by, flashing back to a tram in 1958 Neustadt. A 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) gets off because he feels sick and wanders the streets, pausing in the entryway of a nearby apartment building where he vomits. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor, comes in and helps him return home.

Michael, diagnosed with scarlet fever, rests at home for the next three months. After he recovers, he visits Hanna with flowers to thank her. The 36-year-old Hanna seduces him and they begin an affair. They spend much of their time together having sex in her apartment and Michael reading her literary works he is studying, such as Emilia Galotti, The Odyssey, The Lady with the Little Dog, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Tintin comic The Seven Crystal Balls. After a bicycling trip, Hanna learns she is being promoted to a clerical job at the tram company. She abruptly moves without telling Michael.

The film switches to Michael at Heidelberg University law school in 1966. As part of a special seminar taught by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz), a camp survivor, the students observe a trial (similar to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials) of several women accused of letting 300 Jewish women die in a burning church when they were SS guards on the death march following the 1944 evacuation of a concentration camp near Krakow. Hanna is one of the defendants.

Stunned, Michael visits a former camp himself. The trial divides the students, with one angrily saying there is nothing to be learned from it other than that evil acts occurred and that the older generation of Germans should kill themselves for their failure to act then.

The key evidence is the testimony of Ilana Mather (Alexandra Maria Lara), author of a memoir of how she and her mother, who also testifies, survived. Hanna, unlike her co-defendants, admits that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and that the ten women she chose during each month's Selektion were gassed. She denies authorship of a report on the church fire, despite pressure from the other defendants, but then admits it rather than complying with a demand to provide a handwriting sample.

Michael then realizes Hanna's secret: she is illiterate and has concealed it her whole life. The other female guards who claim she wrote the report are lying to place responsibility on Hanna. Michael informs Rohl that he has information favorable to one of the defendants but is not sure what to do since the defendant herself chooses not to disclose the information. Rohl tells him that if he has learned nothing from the past there is no point in having the seminar.

Hanna receives a life sentence for her admitted leadership role in the church deaths while the other defendants are sentenced to four years and three months each. Michael meanwhile marries, has a daughter and divorces. Retrieving his books from the time of the affair with Hanna, he begins reading them into a tape recorder. He sends the cassette tapes and a recorder to Hanna. Eventually, she begins to check the books out from the prison library and teaches herself to read and write by following along with Michael's tapes. She starts writing back to Michael in brief, child-like notes.

Michael does not write back or visit, but keeps sending tapes, and in 1988 a prison official (Linda Bassett) telephones him to seek his help with Hanna's transition into society after her upcoming release. He finds a place for her to live and a job and finally visits Hanna a week before her release. In their meeting, Michael remains somewhat distant and confronts her about what she has learned from her past. Michael arrives at the prison on the date of Hanna's release with flowers. He discovers that Hanna hanged herself and left a tea tin with cash in it with a note asking Michael to give the cash and some money in a bank account to Ilana.

Michael travels to New York. He meets Ilana (Lena Olin) and confesses his relationship with Hanna. He tells her about the suicide note and Hanna's illiteracy. Ilana tells Michael there is nothing to be learned from the camps and refuses the money. Michael suggests that she donate the money to an organization that combats adult illiteracy, preferably a Jewish one, and she agrees, though she wryly notes "illiteracy isn't much of a Jewish problem." Ilana keeps the tea tin since it is similar to one stolen from her in Auschwitz.

The film ends with Michael getting back together with his daughter Julia at Hanna's grave and beginning to tell her his story.

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