The Reader (Stephen Daldry) 2008
The Reader is about young Michael (played by David Cross and Ralph Fiennes in Germany who falls sick and is helped by tram worker Hannah (Kate Winslet). Later on, they start a sexual relationship that transforms where she asks Michael to read to her before sex. Hannah leaves after the summer and eight years later Michael is a law student being taught by the always great Bruno Ganz. Michael goes to a Nazi war criminal trial and finds Hannah is on trial with several other women for crimes against the Jews. Michael has some knowledge which Hannah is keeping secret (because of shame) which could mitigate her sentence. We also flash forward in time with an older Michael (Fiennes) who is emotionally distant and cold to every woman he meets.
I can already hear the groans of “not another WWII movie”. Believe me, even though part of the story is about Nazi war crimes this is not about WWII. I almost see it as convenience given to the viewer by the writer. The writer could have made a highly contrived and overly complicated scenario where Hannah was responsible for many deaths and Michael holds the key helping her defense. But isn’t it easier to say Nazi and have the audience on the same page? We really don’t need any exposition and yet we know the stakes and we know the guilt involved with the war criminals.
The Reader is about shame. There is the obvious shame Hannah has which prevents her from defending herself. Oh, I have read some critics which have slammed the movie because they believe the movie is saying Hannah’s defense completely negates any responsibility she had in the camps. Well, they are not paying attention to the movie. Hannah’s defense does not absolve her of her moral sins, nor does it completely clear her of criminal charges but it does mitigate her sentence. Michael’s shame is of his affair with an older woman which prevents him from giving helpful evidence.
As I said, the movie is about shame and about how that shame can define our actions. This is not about how we would deal with the Nazis, but how we would react to moral dilemmas in which we can face embarrassment. I know several people from my career who get fired for minor lies (and completely destroy their credibility) for events which are so petty and negligible but because they are a little embarrassing. I know The Reader seems like old material, but it does work a completely new angle on tired territory.