Directed by Stephen Daldry, the British Theatre director who began to make films. His first film was 'Billy Elliott', a brilliant film that the UK can be very proud of.
The Reader takes the viewer by surprise twice. First when you see a teenage boy, so easily step into a sexual relationship with a woman he doesn't know, and who is double his age. The boy and the woman are the two main characters of the film.
The second surprise comes when in the story of the film, some years later, the boy, now a young man, steps into a courtroom as a student of law, to discover that one of the accused (of Nazi was crimes) is the woman he 'knew' when he was 15 years old.
The filmscript is very carefully crafted (by David Hare, UK play-write) from the book by ; locations, set-design, lighting, rain & mist effects, all top notch, and the film is beautifully shot, by highly skillful filmmakers.
The cast is excellent; the German accent charming; the music brilliant. It is obvious that this film was given thorough preparation and had a substantial budget.
Having seen the film I was left with a feeling of uneasiness, and initially not sure why I felt that way. I felt something was dishonest in this particular story and the way I had been pulled into it. I was also left with the questions of 'what is the story really about?' What had I learned from the story? What was the gain of all that the characters went through? Not clear.
Then when I had taken some distance, I began to see why I felt uneasy and what, in my humble opinion, is wrong with the story and therefor with the film.
The way this film effects the audience is as follows: because the boy becomes deeply involved with the women, he also becomes deeply interested in what happens to her when she is in court regarding her (alleged) war crimes.
So through the boy, we the audience, get hooked into the story of the film in the same way. In this way the writer of the story, aided by the script writer and by the film director, connects a young generation (who watch the film) with the 'old' issue(s) of Nazi war crimes. How true and effective that connection is, remains to be seen.
It is a known fact that the younger (post-war) generations in Germany don't know what to make of the war crimes that were committed by their country-men during WW2, and mostly ignore the issue altogether.
Through the sexual activity in the first part of the film, the writers & makers of this film have hooked us, and set us up to get involved in the war-crime issue, like it or not. Sadly nothing much happens regarding the war crimes issue and we're left wondering what the story is about, and even who the story is about.
Michel doesn't seem to be doing anything at all with his life, while Hanna is stuck in jail for life (she learns to read & write...).
The writers & director of this film lure us (as viewers) into a sexual relationship that should not have existed, but with carefully crafted images and cleverly written scenes & dialogue we (the viewers) are pulled into sexual passions that are well ahead of the boy's level of maturity, and that are in fact messing-up his life badly.
The film glosses over the fact that this sexual relationship was illegal, and that the woman was basically abusing a minor. We are charmed by great images, a beautifully shot film, highly skillfully made, and charmed by the boy who is sweet and good looking and who is carefully directed.
The abuse that is actually taking place, sets the boy up for a life of problems, relationship breakdown and loneliness. The film glosses over this reality (the woman wrecking the boy's life) with charming readings by the boy, and making the illiteracy of the woman such a big deal.
As the story goes on, we discover that the woman rather goes to jail for the rest of her life, then owning up to her illiteracy, and Michel, now a grown man, spends many hours recording literature (in his home) for Hanna to listen to (in prison). Is that really how Michel is left to feel? He still wants to read stories to her, like he did when he was 15? So he does it from a distance... I don't buy it. By this point the story has lost it's way for me, if ever there was a story at all.
You may say, life is often stranger-then-fiction, and so we should be able to imagine a boy falling for a woman, like in this film. OK. But personally, I don't believe the boy had sufficient motivation for a full blown sexual affair with this woman, and to keep coming back to her apartment.
All he had was curiosity. In my view, that was (is) not enough. The boy Michel represents a new, happy & healthy generation, set against the unhappy, unhealthy older generation (who are deeply tainted by WW2 and the crimes that took place).
The happy & healthy boy that Michel is, might have some sexual curiosity, but he is also smart enough and unspoiled enough to not get hooked into this woman's life.
I feel we were tricked into the first sex scene, by the boy getting the black coal-dust into his face, and this becoming the reason for him having to undress and take a bath. Sure, I saw the boy smile, a little later, like his 'plan' had worked (or something like that), but for me the whole thing was not believable, not honest drama; it was a smart move (a trick) by the writers & director to quickly get us into the sexual passion.
Even if I go along with how this was done, I would still think that a healthy boy (who has not suffered abuse and is surrounded by family and friends) would not go back to the place where he has let himself go a great deal further then what he is ready for.
This is important, because in life much gets spoiled and messed-up, and finding the truth of a situation can be difficult, painful, and possibly even take half a life-time. Truth is the foundation of happiness and is extremely precious.
When truth gets lost, everything goes down the drain. Michel, as a boy of 15, was well connected with the truth in his life. He was happy, smart and excited for his future. Truth gives us peace-of-mind, and it has an alarm system that goes off when a line is being crossed from truth to false.
I have no doubt that in real life, a healthy boy like Michel, at age 15, would have an alarm go off, loud & clear, that what he has just done (having sex with this woman he doesn't know, and who is roughly his mother's age) was WRONG.
His curiosity was satisfied; why should he go back? The film writers & director want us to believe that Michel was SO taken with the sex, that he wanted more. I don't think so, and I don't believe that.
In reality, and in truth, Michel was left with an ugly feeling afterwards, that what had happened was wrong, and would be considered wrong by all of his family and friends. That understanding alone would have caused him to stop & think.
The sex that took place was also well beyond Michel's sexual desire or need. At that point in the story, and in Michel's life, he was still a virgin, and, having just had sex with an older woman that he doesn't know, the natural, healthy thing for a 15 year old to do, would have been to do nothing. Michel going back to Hanna the next day was not believable to me.
On a more practical note I had difficulty with much of what went on. Hanna being at home, free from her job, just when Michel came out of school was not believable. I didn't believe that Michel could make all these visits, even go on a trip for a few days, without his family, his friends, or the school, getting suspicious and finding out anything at all.
A couple of times I saw Michel in Hanna's apartment at night (it was dark). This affair went on for several months. In the kind of household that we saw Michel was from, especially in Germany where everything is on the clock, he would have been put under serious pressure by his parents, to be back home straight from school.
Every time Michel visited Hanna, time didn't seem to exist; he read entire books to her, we're led to believe. In the deleted scenes there's a scene of Michel having Hanna over at his parents house; even wanting to have sex with her there. Completely not-believable.
The film carefully hides these problems while the story moves on. But because of the dishonesty (of the script), the story doesn't go anywhere. If we accept the first act of the film (the period where Michel is 15), then the theme of the film should really be SEXUAL ABUSE.
This is what Michel has suffered, even though the writers & director (and the world at large possibly) happily gloss over this serious fact. There is a small concession by the film makers, when we see how Michel has become a rather 'closed' person, and we know that his marriage has failed.
The opening scene in the film suggest a one-night-stand with some woman. It looks like Michel has become a lonely and unhappy person. Smart as this man is, would he not have thought back in his life, and realized that 'what happened between him and the woman' has -in retrospect- caused him much difficulty.
No doubt, his loneliness stems from that episode in his life, and how he got screwed up. Before that time, as a child and a boy, Michel was happy, outgoing, socially well connected, energetic etc. Michel was heading for a great life, until his life became sidetracked through the affair, and I'm sure that in his later life, Michel would have figured where and when things went wrong.
The script & film don't tell us anything about that. Instead the film suggests that Michel, in some ways, still loves Hanna, and wants to carry on with her, even though it's clear that he can't. This is where I begin to protest LOUDLY.
With the health and strength of his youth, Michel will REMEMBER something of the TRUTH that he knew when he was young. The (unspoiled) child in him will remember that there is a better way, and will tell him that he really didn't want to engage in sex with the woman.
He only looked at her legs out of curiosity, but as a result of the affair, his sexual future and social functioning were badly distorted at the deeper level of his nerve system. The woman took charge in their sexual encounters thereby ruining Michel's innocence and ending his 'normal' development.
While in 'normal' life, which is the life Michel was living, a boy growing up, gradually develops his own sexual expression and understanding in interaction with his peers (with occasional sexual activity and sufficient time of reflection and other learning), in this scenario the woman did it all for him in the way you can put a big scratch on an (old style vynal) music record.
The scratch can never be erased, and the music will never be heard again. The film glosses over this abuse, and even later in Michel's life the film glosses over the same again when we see Michel going back to reading stories for Hanna while we're not getting any closer to the truth in Michel's life.
The question rises, who is the story (of the film) really about? Hardly about Michel; his issues are not uncovered; after the affair with Hanna nothing much seems to be happening with him. However, the film is not really about the women either.
We never get to know her any better. We never discover what she thinks or feels about her past. All the way through the film she seems to be this lone person with no connection with anybody. She seems a little backwards and from her testimony we understand, she was 'only looking for a job', and on top of that, she was illiterate...
In this way we are asked, it seems, to have 'some understanding' of why she did what she did (let 300 people be burned to death). What is the film trying to achieve?
In the court room Hanna suddenly takes responsibility for writing the statement (by the prison guards) that she didn't write. Why should she suddenly give in to this lie, while she was the 'honest' guard, compared to the other guards.
The script writer wants us to believe that she was SO ashamed of being illiterate that she would rather be jailed for the rest of her life. Not believable to me. The whole illiteracy thing seems such a strange issue, siting in the middle of this story that isn't happening.
Toward the end of the film, Michel travels to New York to visit the daughter of the Jewish woman who testified at the trial and offers her the money and the tin jar that was Hanna's personal treasure. The woman refuses the money, understandably so, but for obscure reasons takes a liking to the jar. She receives the jar as if it is a long lost treasure...
This woman and her family have been through gruesome experiences at the hands of the Nazi's, but now I'm ask to believe that she should embrace this Nazi treasure. For me, she wouldn't touch it; wouldn't want it anywhere near her. She would gladly show this man the door.
The classroom discussions between the students and their teacher (great to see Bruno Ganz in this part) are interesting and bring questions regarding the holocaust into the open, which is perhaps the best thing this film has achieved.
Sadly, to arrive at this achievement, we are given a story that is twisted and dishonest, in my view, and that delivers nothing more then Michel deciding to 'open up' to his daughter 20+ years after he got messed up as a teenager.
Perhaps that through Michel finally 'opening up' he will (eventually) discover that he was abused by the woman, and that through that abuse, his whole life has taken a different and rather unhappy course... Wow. Too little, too late, I would say.
Even putting a young actor through 'acting out' sexual activity that is way outside of his normal and healthy private life, I find objectionable.
In this way, the young man is asked to open a door in his personal life, that could produce harm later on in his life. You might say, they are only acting, it wasn't for real. Sure, but at the physical, neurological, sexual level, the body doesn't know the difference.
While you might think that you have it all under control, 'you know what you are doing' etc., I would say, think again. You might be over-estimating your mental control over your life. There are always deeper things going on that your mind cannot control.
You might find, years later, that on a deep (almost unconscious) level something sneaked into your life, that went to work doing it's damage, only to emerge years later when you are confronted with some horrible facts.
When I saw the interview with David Kross and Stephen Daldry, it shocked me how very young David was, and how he was now having to deal with the repercussions of his sexual performances and naked appearance on screen.
Being one of the main characters in a British film that would be screened around the world was obviously a huge attraction to the young actor.
But I'm quite sure, he would have been much happier to participate in a big movie, without having to do what he was asked to do.
He paid a hefty price that was downplayed by the director ("..it only took a couple of days.."). At that point in time, (when the film was being made) nobody quite knows how big that price really was (will be).
The future will tell, and I really do hope that David Kross can find happiness and fulfillment in his life, just like what young Michel was heading for but didn't get.