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Movie Review: “The Reader” by Stephen Daldry

Updated on March 4, 2019

There are many movies that go over the subject of literature and its power, most of them being biopics based on writers lives. The one I am going to speak about today is not of those, and it is, in its own way, quite peculiar.

I came across “The reader” only a couple of years ago when I was studying for my English exams. Speaking exams can be tricky when you are not much of a talker, not even in your mother tongue, so my first intention with watching movies was not to enjoy myself but to foster my facility in oral expression. However, I must confess I ended up getting quite fond of watching movies, and of this one in particular!

“The reader” is based on the novel “Der vorleser” written by German author Bernhard Schlink, and adapted by Davis Hare.

The movie tells the story of Michael Berg, a mid-age lawyer during the nineties, whose life has been marked by an affair he had while being a teenager with a woman older than him.

Michael meets Hanna Schmitz for the first time in 1958 when he is fifteen years old. Michael is feeling really sick and ends up sitting in the entryway of an apartment building. Hanna is just arriving home from work, and seeing the distressed boy, she helps him to go back home.

Three months pass, Michael has been recovering at home from scarlet fever, and he tells her mother that the day he got ill, a woman helped him. So, he come back to Hanna’s apartment to bring her some flowers as a way of thanking her. That day they begin a passionate affair.

This relationship has a peculiarity: Hanna insists on having Michael reading to her out loud everytime they meet. She has a rather difficult temper, and Michael finds it hard sometimes to understand her sudden changes of mood, but being so attached to her as he is, he simply accepts it.

After some months, Hanna receives the news that she is going to be promoted to a clerical job in the train company she works at. Without saying a word to Micheal, she moves from her apartment, disappearing from his life completely.

Eight years later, Micheal is a law student. He is witnessing a trial as part of a college seminar, and he is shocked to find out that Hanna is one of the defendants. She and five other women, that used to work as guards for the SS, are accused of letting three hundred women die inside of a burning church after the evacuation of a concentration camp. Unlike the other defendants, that simply deny any participation in all that, Hanna admits it and gives a detailed description of how things worked in Auschwitz. This leads the other women to ally themselves against Hanna and to accuse her of writing on her own a report of the facts that contradict everything she has said till that moment. Hanna denies this accusation, remarking that they have all participated in the composition of said document, so the judge demands her to provide a sample of her handwriting. To that, Hanna decides to declare herself guilty.

It is only at that moment that Michael realizes what Hanna is hiding: She is illiterate, and she has been trying to hide it all her life.

Hanna’s reappearance will make Micheal face his old feelings and the guilt that not being able to get over them will carry within.

Why should you be watching it?

Despite the quite mixed reviews this movie has received from critics, I personally find the story not only emotional but also defying when it comes to empathizing with the main characters, something I consider very much interesting.

Kate Winslet’s character seems to me the most difficult to define, and the portrayal is so wonderful that it is not a surprise that it had earned her an Academy Award. Hanna is not someone easy to like, most of her interactions with young Michael showing her as a rather cold woman. Some people find that what can be understood of the story is that being unable to read is more serious than being responsible for the death of hundreds of people, but I am sure that it was not the writer's intention. This fact makes Hanna, from my point of view, a much more complex character: We really do not get to know if she is really that hard-hearted woman we believed her to be or someone who out of ignorance, could not really comprehend the magnitude of her actions. I am inclined to believe this last option.

During the final scenes of the movie, when she and Michael meet after all those years, I think she shows, if not an affection towards him, at least a big gratefulness. Micheal asks her if she had thought about the past during her imprisonment, and she says she had not. But still, in her will, she insists on leaving her money to one of the survivors of the camps.

Learning to read changes her, and I think that part of this change radicates precisely in understanding what she had done.

The love story, twisted and complicated as it can be, has tender moments, especially the scenes that show Micheal reading to Hanna. Even though the distance, and through the decades, books keep bringing them together and connecting them.

The movie also made me think a lot about what being able to read really means. I have been a voracious reader all my life and I have always considered reading something as normal as walking or speaking. But, what if I could not read at all? I would certainly not be the person I am. That thought made me value my reading skills more than ever.

It is because of all this, that I consider “The reader” a movie worth watching.

If you liked my review on this movie and are interested in purchasing it, you can do so at the link below.

© 2018 Literarycreature

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