"The notion of secrecy is central to Western
... so says a character in The Reader, and the author of this story
must truly believe that, because the entire film, and I presume the source
novel, is driven by the premise that secrecy is the key to plotting as well as
In the first portion of the story, which takes place in 1958, a 15-year-old
man in Germany engages in an passionate summer romance with a woman some
twenty years older. Their time together consists entirely of sex and his
reading to her. The secrecy theme is introduced in two ways. First, most
obviously, they must keep their romance a secret from the boy's family and (I
presume) the authorities. Second, the older woman is filled with secrets of
her own. After they have made love on three separate occasions, the young boy
asks her name. She responds with fear and suspicion, as if it were still Nazi
times and her last name were Cohen. We will soon learn why she wants to be as
anonymous as possible.
We next see her completely abandon her life, leaving neither farewell note
nor forwarding address, when offered a promotion into management from her job
as a streetcar conductor. She is protecting her secret. The boy does not see
her for another decade, at which time he is a graduate student in a law
school, and she is on trial for war crimes. Turns out she was a guard at
And you thought YOUR first girlfriend was a bitch!
Amazingly enough, I have not really spoiled the key secret. While the
woman's former profession is hidden from us and from her young lover during
their liaison, that is not the big secret which drives the plot. It is
something else: something which caused her to become a concentration camp
guard instead of accepting a wartime promotion at Siemens; something which
caused her to give up her job when the streetcar authorities wanted her in the
office; something which caused her to choose the young man as her lover in
1958; something which caused her to accept far greater culpability for
Auschwitz than she deserved. What is the final secret? I won't tell you, but I
will say that it will be obvious if you pay attention to the movie. The answer
is already buried somewhere in these paragraphs, if you care to search for it.
That is my secret.
Hannah and I are not the only one with secrets. The young man has several
of his own. He knows a key fact which would have a very significant impact on
her trial, providing absolute proof that she could not have done something of
which she is accused. He never reveals it. Like Hannah, he has even more
secrets. Although the young man continues to maintain a certain level of
contact with Hannah throughout his adult life, he never tells anyone else
about their relationship until after her death. His abnormal childhood
relationship with Hannah, and his failure to save her when he could have,
continue to torment and haunt him through a failed marriage and any number of
subsequent sexual relationships. He remains distant from genuine human
contact. In a certain way, he continues his relationship with Hannah for
decades, even after her imprisonment. He can't have sex with her any more, but
he can still recapture their summer of love by reading to her, and so he does,
by sending "books on tape" to her prison.
Kate Winslet turns in a very impressive performance in the lead. She
completely abstains from the temptation any actor must feel to make his or her
screen presence sympathetic. She manages to make the character complicated and
credible, but never likable. She had to be physically unappealing as well.
Even the character's best scenes never allow Winslet to appear as attractive
as she really is, and as the character ages, Winslet turns decrepit - and
quite convincingly as well, not with showy actor's tricks, but just by trying
to hew to reality. I don't think Winslet has a false moment in this film.
The film has not received the same laurels which Winslet has had placed on
her brow, but I disagree with most of the negative reviews of The Reader. The
more I thought about this movie, the more I realized that every facet of the
storyline had been given a great deal of thought, and that every scene played
an important role in plot and/or character development. (Although a couple of
scenes really stretch viewer credulity.) Moreover, the film maintains a
consistently appropriate sadness in the atmosphere, and often achieves true
visual excellence. It is a somber frown-fest, to be sure, but you can read the
plot summary and see that there is no real opening for chuckles. It is what it
had to be, an extremely depressing movie, but one well worth a look for those
who appreciate dramas which treat serious ideas.
The Reader has often been called a Holocaust movie, but it is not. It
cannot avoid the Holocaust because it is about a German woman born in 1922 who
stands trial for her participation in the Final Solution, and it features a
lot of other Germans from that same generation who are trying to expunge their
collective guilt by placing Hannah and a few others on trial. The film does
not shy away from Hannah's real crimes, or German society's, but neither does
it picture them. No scene takes place before 1958.
The Reader has also been called a movie which fails to condemn statutory
rape, and that is also incorrect. The young man never recovers from his
relationship with Hannah, and is never able to live a normal life afterwards,
so there is no sympathy for Hannah's having seduced him. In fact, a secret
revealed later in the film indicates to us and to him that Hannah might have
ordered him to the gas chambers under different circumstances, as she did with
other young people who had read to her years earlier. Hannah is portrayed
unsympathetically. We can understand why she did what she did, but we never
have any sympathy for those actions or for her. If she got the chance to live
her life again, she wouldn't do anything different about the Auschwitz
prisoners or about the seduction of the young boy. She has no excuses for her
wartime crimes, and it is always clear to us that the only reason the
youngster makes love to her is that he's a 15-year-old boy in love and lust
for the first time, and she is a moderately attractive and sexually needy
woman. That set of circumstances causes him to ignore her hard edges, her
frustrating remoteness, and her ubiquitous secrecy. We are not led to desire
her as our lover, and it's obvious that the boy would never have chosen her if
he had been his 35-year-old self, but he is what he is, and that makes him
place her on a pedestal. On the other hand, we do not have contempt for her
any more than we have respect. She's not the picture of cartoon evil like a
Bond villain, but simply a terrifying reminder of how any Joe Lunchpail of
average or below average intelligence can easily become complicit with evil
when one of those cartoon maniacs does appear, in this case Herr Hitler.
Not only are we unsympathetic to Hannah's seduction, but we can also see
that the boy's age is neither gratuitous or arbitrary. The plot and the young
man's character development absolutely require that Hannah be that treasured
first love so many of us have had, so that he would obsess about her for
years, as so many of us obsess about our own first loves; and so that he would
keep that obsession a secret from his future lovers, as we usually do with our
irreplaceable memories of first love. If the lad had already had previous
girlfriends, the story would not work. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that the
story was constructed meticulously, and it required him to be about 15 years
All the talk of the Holocaust and statutory rape missed the point. In a
very real sense, this film is like the second Lolita film, the serious one.
Both films are about the loss of "first love" turning into a lifelong
obsession in which the man tries continually to recapture what he lost when
that love was denied him.
And, coming from the central core of Western literature, both films are
about keeping secrets, and the impact of doing so, both on those who keep them
and those from whom they are kept.
Kate Winslet never did a full frontal, but spent about ten minutes of this
film naked, nearly naked, and/or having sex.
Here's the film clip.
(Needless to say, this is a big download.)
Jeannette Hain is naked in the
opening scene, which establishes certain character flaws in the young boy
after he grows to manhood. Full frontal and rear views.