“The Reader” – A Film Reflection
I have been haunted by my memories of “The Reader” since viewing it recently. There is very good reason that Kate Winslet ran away with a 2009 Academy Award for her role as Hanna Schmitz, a woman harboring a secret Nazi past while conducting a summer love affair with a fifteen-year-old boy. Winslet is enthralling in this role. While on the surface, one could condemn Schmitz’s actions, there are too many layers in this emotional human drama to make it merely black and white.
David Kross plays the young man with almost equal agility as Winslet; his character, Michael Berg, never really has the chance to peel those layers away. Flashbacks with the incomparable Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael, show that he has struggled throughout his lifetime with how his summer tryst defined him, with no clear resolution, as Hanna simply vanished at summer’s end.
Water plays a big role in this film. It is storming on the first day the boy meets the woman, as he cowers, retching from an oncoming bout with Scarlet Fever, in the alcove of her building. She comes to his aid, washing his vomit from the ground with a pail of water. Several weeks later when his illness has ebbed, he brings her a bouquet to thank her for her help. She tells him to fetch some coal for her in the basement; when he returns, covered in coal dust, she runs him a bath. Their affair has now been set inextricably in motion.
He is a bright young man who gains confidence from his dalliance with the woman. One does not think of him as “under age” except during a two-day bicycle excursion on which he has convinced her to join him, when the two of them order lunch. In the naked light of the day, it seems to their waitress that they are mother and son. When she comments as he is paying that “I hope your mother enjoyed her meal,” he says “Yes, very much” (out of earshot of Hanna). Then he goes to Hanna and kisses her on the lips.
Perhaps Hanna would have sent Michael away after their first sexual encounter, but once he starts reading to her, she is addicted. He has no idea she does not know how to read, or much else about her for that matter. It is when he begins to study law, years after the summer affair, when sitting in on a trial, that he discovers the truth about Hanna.
Where it would take the typical actor 20 minutes of soliloquy, Winslet and Fiennes can each portray thoughts and feelings in a gesture or facial expression. Also, the make-up people on this film are to be commended for aging them so impeccably, as the story begins in 1958 and finishes in 1995. A haunting glimpse into the the psyches of two people in post-war Germany, that makes “Summer of ’42” seem flippant in comparison.
Fiennes, Winslet and Kross work wonderfully together.