By Nevin Mercede
The Reader, the recent English language film based on the 1995 novel by German writer and lawyer Bernhard Schlink, works against most of what American film seeks to provide: a sense that the characters learn from their encounters. Thus, as viewers, we learn by wanting them to do what they cannot do. It is painful. It is utterly anti-romantic, though the film leads us to anticipate romantic resolutions throughout. Perhaps, in the end, romanticism is finally offered when the tale is revealed to be an offering to the main character’s post adolescent daughter many years after the events. “Michael” (Ralph Fiennes and David Kross) finally learns that to let die what his life has revealed would be a moral failing, even if one of significantly less value than the many moral failings-and attempts to ameliorate them-he and others commit throughout the story he tells.
“Hannah” (Kate Winslet) provides the more complex character, although the contradictions both embody are in us all: we want to be loved but we fear being seen for who we really are; we seek knowledge but we run from what it suggests we could enact differently; keeping up appearances are often all we can offer, despite the pain and deprivation they cause us emotionally and spiritually. But for Hannah these contradictions are compounded by a background we glean only through realizing the extent of her shame, and how far she stands from understanding the results of what others comprehend more easily. Hers is an only partially socialized being. She believes rules followed faithfully are a protection from doing wrong.
But which life is the worse? Which more morally lax? Though able to briefly give love to one another, there seems to have been little love exchanged with others in their lives. While we know nothing of exactly how Hannah became the no-nonsense, illiterate adult adept at skirting that failing’s exposure, we see Michael within his hill-top living family, a fairly stereotypical and leanly portrayed one for the era: patrician, but forgiving, father, worried and over-caring mother, jealous and perplexed younger siblings. We understand Michael’s attraction to what Hannah offers, even when, as it is at the start, merely the unexpected kindness of a stranger.
This film argues against the idea that knowing what is right leads to doing what is right. It uses familiar life milestones of a privileged and professionally successful man to illuminate a woman’s poverty, one subject, at minimum, to gender and class bias further framed by the fickleness of politics and revisionist history. The late Pauline Kael would hate this film, claiming its superior ability to manipulate our sympathies all the more coercive for not satisfying them. In contrast, I am greatly moved by its revelations of the human. We are, like Michael, like Hannah, strangely resistant toward making the moves that might release us from our emotional cages, those structures so well constructed from our first encounters with life’s disappointments we rarely decorate with life’s early joys.
PS There is nearly perfect cameo by the fabulous Bruno Ganz as a Socratic law professor.