“Only one thing can make a soul complete—and that one thing is love”
What is guilt? I believe this is the central question behind Stephen Daldry’s new film The Reader. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, the story asks its audience what a true monster is. If you are doing your job, afflicted by a handicap that others will use against you, can you be held responsible for your actions if your own demise would be the result of standing against orders? Should you be held to blame for not killing yourself once you found out the bigger picture of that small task you were forced to participate in? If you know a secret, one that could exonerate someone from being found guilty of murder, should you help her even though you know she’s accepted her guilt despite being unable to stop it? What if that person was someone you loved? There is some heavy material thrown about in the second half of this film, emotions run high and people must make decisions concerning some very dire situations. One thing is for sure, though, once that decision is made, no matter which side of the fence you fall on, some shred of guilt, some feeling of remorse, is inevitably going to follow you around for the rest of your life. This is what we call being human, because as Bruno Ganz’s Professor Rohl says, “our justice is governed by laws, not morals.” It doesn’t matter whether something was right or wrong, it’s whether it was legal or illegal. Unfortunately our souls don’t work that way.
As said, these moral quandaries crop up in the brilliantly paced and constructed second half of the film. The power involved in the characters’ actions all weigh heavy on those they touch. Perhaps the weight would not feel as palpable without the events of the first act, but either way, that portion of the film is too light and innocuous. We learn about young Michael Berg’s, (a wonderful turn by David Kross, who is the true star of the film), affair with an older woman named Hanna Schmitz. This woman is very troubled and in a state of constant flux where her emotions are concerned. She loves Berg, but can never quite allow herself to fully commit to that feeling, her past continuously nagging at the back of her head, remembering what it was she used to do with those who read to her. Kate Winslet’s performance as Hanna is quite good, but like the film itself, doesn’t come into its own until the second act, when all the secrets finally become uncovered.
It is a good beginning, the unabashed love of a young 15 year old and his first sexual partner. He becomes her orator of stories and partner in romance, but they both know it could never last. School would be commencing and Berg would see the young girls his age, ever comparing them to Hanna, and her manifesting his feelings with her own jealousy, knowing that she must let him go … this time sending herself away rather than those she “befriended” of her past, those she sent off to whatever fate awaited them. Whether this violation became so deeply rooted in the boy, I’m not sure, but when he goes off to law school and crosses paths with his first love again, this time as she awaits charges of Nazi war crimes, he is torn on what is morally correct. It becomes his obligation to let the truth come out, despite the activities she partook in during the Holocaust. According to the law, he must divulge the information for justice, but his moral compass may not be able to do so.
The story truly is wonderfully acted and directed, pulling at the audience’s emotions and engaging them throughout. However, while the second half is the most intriguing and resonant, it also contains the one activity that I found abhorrent. Now older, Michael Berg is played by Ralph Fiennes, a lawyer, recently divorced and with a daughter. His journey back home, to his mother that has all but given up on him as a distant figure unable to open up to those that love him, becomes one of returning memories. Discovering the books he once read to Hanna almost two decades earlier, the guilt of what he didn’t do makes him set upon a mission to right that wrong. But the way in which he does so is really quite wrong to me. He seems to condemn her for what she did still and only creates cassettes of stories to send her to assuage his own selfish need for forgiveness. He never appears to care about her, because if he did, he would have made different choices in that courtroom years before. Berg shows the selfishness that followed him the entire story and really got me thinking that maybe he was a worse human being than Hanna. It’s an interesting dynamic to be sure, one that subverts the somewhat “touching” conclusion the filmmakers seem to want to attempt.
The Reader is an interesting look at German guilt and the people’s need to place blame on others for the Holocaust in order to somehow absolve their own indifference of doing nothing when they themselves knew what was going on. One of Berg’s classmates gets the whole issue correct in a little tirade about the absurdity of the trial. Here they all were, guilty themselves of knowing what went on in the thousands of camps, yet putting on trial only six women because a survivor, (interesting to see Lena Olin play a mother and daughter—the beauty of a film spanning decades), wrote a book fingering them. Just as Germany needed to place blame, so did Michael Berg. Rather than put it on his own shoulders though, like Hanna eventually selflessly does, he decides to side with the masses, sitting back silently and then trying in earnest to deal with his eventual guilt, not to apologize to the person he let down, but to somehow forgive himself. It is quite the despicable act and I’m not sure if that was the filmmakers’ intent, however, that is the lasting impression it left on me.
The Reader 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
 Kate Winslet and David Kross star in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. Photo by: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2008 The Weinstein Co.
 Ralph Fiennes is Michael Berg in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. Photo by: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2008 The Weinstein Co.