Late in The Reader, a professor sits before his students. It is 1966 and the professor, Rohl (Bruno Ganz) has been bringing his law class by train to observe the war crimes trial of female SS guards accused of leaving 300 Jewish prisoners to burn to death in a bombed church. Dieter (Volker Bruch) is restless. Calling the trial a “distraction,” he sees in the focus on six guards an official effort to blame individuals for crimes committed by a population. “The question is,” he says, “How could you let this happen? There were thousands of camps, everyone knew.”
But Rohl has another question in mind. Not who is guilty, but how the law defines, assesses, and then punishes guilt. “The law is narrow,” the professor has asserted previously, much to Dieter’s frustration. But another student, Michael (David Kross), also uncomfortable, sees in the narrowness an effort to create order, to grant understanding and even a sort of mercy in the face of overwhelming monstrosity.
The difficult questions raised here are broad and familiar, articulated most famously, perhaps, in Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer’s film about pervasive culpability in war (a film that, technically, might have been seen by the students in The Reader, as it was released in 1961). Still, they pose for Michael a particular sort of pain, resentment, and remorse. For he has spotted among the trial defendants a woman with whom he spent a delirious, sensuous summer when he was just 15. As he watches her from a balcony seat in the courtroom, he bows his head and looks pale, horrified as he considers that he was once affiliated — even in love — with a Nazi. During this ordeal, Hannah (Kate Winslet) remains oblivious to his presence, and while the film shows frequent close-ups of her face as she tries to figure out the questions asked and her part in the atrocities, he actually is looking at the back of her head, from a distance. This means that their experiences, here and in his many flashbacks of their romance, are profoundly separate.
It also means that the film is too tediously invested in Michael’s story. Hannah, 30something at the time of their liaison, becomes an occasion for his self-discovery rather than a character in her own right. She, and her trial, might even be termed a “distraction,” a set of events that help him to discover his own moral condition.
Of course, it’s not the first time that a male protagonist has been instructed by his encounters with larger-than-life women. And it’s not surprising that as the adult Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes), looks back, his memories are selective and his encounters with such women are illustrated dramatically. His ex-wife appears briefly as dreamy-seeming fellow law student; his daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung) an eager-to-please, damaged product of his emotional “distance”; and a survivor of the camp where Hannah worked, Rose (Lena Olin) serves as a kind of font of wisdom, when he makes a pilgrimage to her perfect apartment in Manhattan to fret over his onetime affection for a murderer. But it is Hannah who colors all of Michael’s subsequent life, and Hannah who remains for him the greatest mystery and source of guilt.
Most obviously, Hannah is unfathomable, the feminine abject/object Michael must figure out and overcome in order to “become a man.” Her introduction into his life frames this function: he’s struggling to get home from school, suffering from undiagnosed scarlet fever and puking on the street, when she comforts him, cleans up the sidewalk, and delivers him back to his parents’ house. Months later, following his recovery, Michael arrives on her doorstep with flowers, meaning to thank her for her kindness. When he finds himself drawn to her (a feeling ignited by that most mundane of adolescent boy movie experiences, his glimpse of her dressing through a doorway), she responds awkwardly, giving him chores to do, bathing him, then seducing him.
The virgin boy is smitten instantly, and he begins visiting her regularly after school. Michael soon finds himself performing another service for Hannah, namely, reading his school assignments to her, from The Odysseyto The Great Gatsby to Chekov’s stories. She has a brusque affect, calls him “kid,” and makes occasional efforts to go along with his youthful enthusiasms (she goes for a weekend bike ride that he remembers vibrantly as filled with laughter and pretty hillsides). Michael, self-assured by his relationship with an older woman and pleased that he keeps such an illicit secret from his stern father, takes the reading as a peculiar foreplay. But it’s clear enough to the rest of us that Hannah’s secret is more traumatic and life-shaping: she can’t read. When Michael’s realization of this takes place years later, he is watching her in court, as she is unable to sign her name to a paper. Suddenly, he is flooded with flashback images of her pushing away menus or papers he hands her back during that summer idyll, and you are underwhelmed by the film’s clumsiness.
The problem is compounded for Michael, as he doesn’t quite share it with Professor Rohl. He alludes vaguely to the dilemma of how to handle “secret information,” noting that he knows something that the defendant doesn’t want revealed “because she’s ashamed.” His own shame, again, is visible in his face, but he’s not quite grasping that part of his own story. Instead, he displaces and blames, finding ways to absolve himself even if he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing.
Like the male protagonist who evolves through his encounters with inexplicable women, the self-ignorant protagonist is hardly news. Rohl instructs him, “What we feel is utterly unimportant. What’s important is what we do.” The adult Michael wrestles with this advice for years, twisting it into a kind of self-absolution when he begins to send the now-imprisoned Hannah recordings of his voice reading books. That she uses these gifts to teach herself to read leads, he thinks, to her moral education. The movie may think this too, as it provides Hannah with a banal but also wretched way to indicate that education. That she echoes Rohl in her self-description only makes Michael’s lack of insight — his focus on his own feelings and perspective — almost unspeakably disturbing. Asserting that she has learned to read, she sighs, “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead.”
Michael’s reading remains the film’s grand metaphor, for his self-understanding and social status, for his presumptions, for his efforts, however tentative, to learn. Rose offers her own instruction when she, ensconced in wealth and terrible memories, essentially dismisses such efforts: “People ask me all the time what I learned in the camps. Go to the theater if you want catharsis. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.” Here the movie acknowledges, even as Michael makes his exasperating way to his better self, that “catharsis” is a fiction — useful perhaps, but restricted, a leisure not afforded most victims of world-shaking trauma. Hannah’s reading, unlike Michael’s reading, exposes her. It makes her see herself, and at last, it makes her impossible.